Coaster Kingdom > Anniversaries

This is a text-based version of Coaster Kingdom Anniversary features. By viewing this version, you miss out on photos, graphics, reader reviews and added functionality. To go to the standard version, click here

Captive Flying Machines (100 Years): Maxim Biography

Despite making enemies of the numerous competitors and possible collaborators he met in his various lines of work, the man enjoyed a reputation as an eccentric character, with a very peculiar sense of humour. For example, at displays of his lamps, his annoyance at onlookers voicing their admiration of Thomas Edison was often vented by sending them scurrying away to find a match "To light the electricity". More bizarrely, he had a passion for elaborate practical jokes, some with a scientific point, some not. On one occasion, for example, he suspected a colleague of stealing his hair oil, and so concocted his own oil using phosphorus, designed to make the user's hair glow in the dark. Sure enough, the thief was caught out when he helped himself to the oil while preparing to meet his girlfriend, and found himself appearing in public with his head radiating a mysterious glow.

In later life, Maxim was to see more of his grandson, Maxim Joubert (son of Adelaide Joubert nee Maxim, and named after Sir Hiram), and the desire to keep the boy amused spurred him to ever more bizarre and cruel pranks. For example, he heard of a theory that human skin reacted to extreme cold in exactly the same way as extreme heat, and sought to investigate. This he did by spending an hour walking around his home, speaking loudly to “The Boy” (as he was always known) about the ritual of branding of cattle in America, while brandishing a red-hot poker for all to see. He then secretly swapped it for an ice-cold poker he had kept hidden and staged an “accident” resulting in the “branding” his cook, sending her running and screaming around the house in the belief that she had been badly burned. While Maxim found this prank hilarious, the cook did not, and resigned as soon as she knew the truth. The youngster was himself not immune to his grandfather’s pranks, and one year was presented with a birthday cake, and given a knife. Hiram told him that by making a clean cut into the cake, he would prove himself a man. The boy was unable to cut it, and became upset, at which point it was revealed that the “cake” was, surreally, stuffed with cotton wool to prevent him from cutting it. Once again, the victim failed to see the humour in Hiram’s pranks.

Of all his eccentricities, however, the most bizarre came to light when his friends noted that he was mysteriously unavailable at certain times each week. One week they followed him to a room, waited until he had left, and went in, no doubt expecting to see some half-finished prototype invention. Instead, they found the room totally bare, apart from a chair by the window, a bag of beans, and a blowpipe. It emerged that Maxim had hired the room for the sole purpose of allowing him to sit at the window, firing beans at Salvation Army parades in the street below! He was confronted and reluctantly agreed that this was probably not the sort of thing that a knight of the realm ought to be doing.

Throughout his life, and particularly in the period after the Captive Flying Machines project, Maxim’s eccentricities and love of the absurd would led him to become involved is some truly bizarre episodes. He contributed to (and often started) obscure arguments in the letters page of various newspapers, and would go to extraordinary lengths to prove himself right on some relatively trivial matter. For many years, would indulge in lengthy debates on the subject of supposedly "perfect" systems for winning at Roulette and in 1908, was asked by Edward VII to investigate a new system advocated by Earl Rosslyn. As a result, he not only got involved in playing endless games with Rosslyn in an attempt to prove him wrong, but even built a perfectly balanced Roulette table on which to play. The challenge, which Maxim won, was covered by the press, though the King's involvement was kept secret.

Another of his challenges came when he defied a magician, John Nevil Maskelyne, to explain the secret behind a trick he had seen another magician perform in his youth. To Maxim's surprise, Maskelyne provided a full and detailed explanation. Frustrated at being beaten, Maxim set out to out-do the magical world, and later recorded inviting a magician (most likely Maskelyne again) to see him perform an early version of the now-famous sawing-the-lady-in-half routine, using his parlour maid as his assistant.

Despite such bizarre projects, Maxim’s final years would see him remain as inventive as ever, albeit with mixed success. He came up with a steam-powered vacuum cleaner, which was unsuccessful due to its impractical size, and its unfortunate tendency to turn everything it collected to mud. He also began work on a gun silencer, and conducted experiments to investigate a way of converting kerosene into petrol using electricity. Most intriguingly of all, however, he wrote “Li Hung Chang’s Scrapbook” in 1913, a book about world religions, in which he took a rather unflattering look at Christianity, and particularly the work of Christian missionaries in Chine. Li Hung Chang himself was a Chinese general and statesman, who had come to England to see the prototype of the Maxim Gun, and struck up a firm friendship with Maxim. He died in 1901, but Maxim claimed an ability to use his name on the basis that he knew that Chang’s views on the subject were the same as his own.

By far the most successful item to emerge in his later years was the Maxim Inhaler, inspired by the need to relieve his own bronchitis. This became very popular in the early years of the 20th Century, and was a commercial success. It did, though, earn him some derision from those who thought that a great inventor like he should not be putting his name to what was seen as a downmarket cure-all. Maxim's final words in his autobiography reflect the irony that he could be thought of as a madman for selling something that improved peoples' health, and yet be remembered as a hero for inventing the machine gun. "From the foregoing, it will be seen that it is a very creditable thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering". Maxim died of bronchopneumonia on November 24th 1916, mid way through World War I, a time when both the machine gun and the aeroplane were being used regularly by both sides. In fact, one of the most widely used type of machine gun was the Vickers Gun, an evolution of the Maxim Gun made by his former business partners.

As for the rest of his family, his brother Hudson Maxim, who was said to bear a remarkable resemblance to Hiram in both looks and attitude, remained in America and became an inventor in his own right. Like Hiram, he had an interest in military inventions, but their relationship broke down in when, in 1890, Hudson patented a new type of smokeless gunpowder under the name “H Maxim”. Hiram claimed the invention as his own, and in 1914 wrote a lengthy letter to the New York Times in which he claimed the invention for himself, and even implied that Hudson, who was born “Isaac Maxim”, had changed his name specifically to bask in the reflected glory of bring Mr H. Maxim. Hudson took offence at this, and replied at even greater length to argue his case. It seems likely that Hudson did not know until he read the letter that this is why Hiram had snubbed him through the intervening years. Indeed, Hudson had contacted Hiram in 1895, asking him to be involved in producing a car in England that he (Hudson) had designed. Hiram made it quite clear that he wanted nothing to do with his inventions whatsoever, and it seems that the two had no further contact other than their argument in the New York Times.

Hiram Percy Maxim, the only son of Hiram and Jane Budden Maxim, also remained in America, although his father did write to him in 1884, offering the 15 year old Percy the chance to work with him in England and attend “One of the finest colleges in England”. Percy did not take up the invitation, almost certainly on the advice of his mother, and the two would never meet again, only contacting each other through the occasional letter. Nevertheless, Percy remained an admirer of his father and, when Sir Hiram died, continued his father’s work in developing a gun silencer. Percy continued the family’s flair for inventions, and would later become known as “The Father of amateur radio”. Percy died in 1943, and to this day, the American Radio Relay League gives out the Hiram Percy Maxim Memorial Award to young operators who have made an outstanding contribution to the cause of amateur radio.

Although Maxim's fame has diminished in comparison to rivals like Edison and the Wright brothers, it is quite astonishing how many of our modern machines have Maxim's name lurking somewhere in their history. His work, however, has not been forgotten. Aside from Blackpool’s Captive Flying Machine, visitors can also see his work exhibited at the Science Museum in London, including one of his guns and propellers from his (real) flying machines. He is also remembered in his birthplace of Sangerville, which became known as “The Town of Two Knights”, having also been the birthplace of mining magnate Sir Harry Oakes.

Of course, Pleasure Beach Blackpool owes him a huge debt of gratitude, as without his work, not only would it be without one of it’s most treasured rides, but without his work on electric lighting, there may not even be such a thing as Blackpool's famous illuminations that gives the Pleasure Beach its late season bonanza every year. The great irony, of course, is that, were Maxim were able to visit the park today, he may take less pride in the ride itself than in the array of bulbs used to light it every night during the latter part of the season

The life of Sir Hiram Maxim had more highs and lows, twists and turns, than all of the Pleasure Beach's rides put together. To remember him solely for the rather bizarre combination of killing machines and pleasure rides is to do a great injustice to a truly astonishing inventor and character. When riding the Sir Hiram Maxim Captive Flying Machines at Pleasure Beach Blackpool, think of the remarkable chain of events that led to the ride's existence, the truly incredible job the park has done to keep this masterpiece as good as new for an entire century.  

While it is fair to say that the Captive Flying Machines did not hold particularly find memories, the same cannot be said of the millions of people who have enjoyed a “flight” over the last century. Their smiles and their laughter are a fitting tribute to a man whose work in the amusement industry was very much the tip of the iceberg.  

Credits >