Updated 27-XII-2018

Sir Hiram S. Maxim

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Hiram S. Maxim in 19158

The name of Hiram Stevens Maxim (Feb 5 1840 - Nov 4 1916) is immediately associated with the invention and development of the machine gun. However, his name figured prominently with the development of early incandescent lamps, and it is in that regard that this short write-up is made.

Hiram S. Maxim was born near Sangerville, Maine, USA. He was the eldest of eight children of Isaac Weston Maxim and Harriet Boston (Stevens) Maxim11. Maxim's ancestors originally lived in the county of Kent, England and were French Huguenots. The family was poor and Hiram began working different jobs at age 14, having received fewer than five years of formal schooling.18 His experiences were many and it was soon discovered that he had an inventive ability.

In 1876 he began to work with electrical things, including lamps. He contributed significantly to the manufacturing of carbon filaments, and introduced a process of flashing the filaments in a hydrocarbon vapour that made the filaments more uniform in physical characterstics as well as performance. In June 1878 several financiers from New York decided to back Maxim's inventions, and they formed the United States Electric Lighting Company, of which Maxim became the chief engineer.18

Hiram Maxim left the United States in 1881, never to return.18 Perhaps he is best remembered for the development of a rapid-fire machine gun - a legacy of questionable human value when compared with his contributions to the incandescent lamp.

Maxim wrote his autobiography in 19158 but little new information can be gleaned from it regarding the subject of the incandescent lamp. A description of an early worker of his is, perhaps, worthy of review since little additional information on this subject appears to be readily available. In an effort not to reveal the name of the individual he simply called the man "Mr. D." However, when the present writer read the account it seemed that the identification of the man was apparent; it was concluded that Mr. D was William Edward Sawyer, a significant inventor in his own right. It then turned out that Maxim, himself, revealed the man's identity. In his autobiography, Maxim printed "MY LIFE", the title of his book, at the top of the even-numbered pages. At the top of the odd-numbered pages he put a short phrase that dealt with one of the subjects on the page. On page 127, at the top, the phrase "SAWYER SHOOTS HIS MAN" appears; this particular page deals exclusively with "Mr. D". Whether the mention of the real name was intentional or not is for others to judge. The following quotes are from Maxim's autobiography and "Mr. D." is assumed, by this writer, to refer to William Edward Sawyer. This story can be compared to the version given elsewhere on this website under the title "William Edward Sawyer."

"People were now beginning to talk about electric light. We read that something was being done in that line in Paris. A gentleman by the name of S. D. Schuyler, who had a large, fine office in the Coal and Iron Exchange and a very powerful backing of wealthy men, formed the first Electric Lighting Company ever formed in the United States. As someone had recommended me as an engineer who was able to attack any possible problem and make a good job of it, Mr. Schuyler sent for me, and I became chief engineer to the Company. This was two years before Edison took up the subject.

"I found a very curious state of affairs in Mr. Schuyler's office. He had in his employ a large, clumsy, and brutal-looking fellow, clean-shaven, whom we will call Mr. D.; he was said to be an expert electrician and telegraph operator, but he was a great drunkard, being comfortably 'corned' all the time...

"The next day he told me that he was a great believer in the future of electric lighting; that he was the first in the field, and that if I would take hold and assist him he would give me a salary of ten dollars a day, as well as a quarter interest in whatever might accrue from the work. This was an exceedingly good offer, especially as I had complete charge of the place. He informed all the men that I had been put in charge, and the first thing I did was to have a talk with Mr. D. I told him that it was not quite the thing to have brandy brought into the place several times a day and to keep on drinking it while at his desk. I assured him that there was a great deal more nourishment in a pint of milk than in a gallon of brandy, and advised him strongly to try milk. The next day he provided himself with a two-quart tin pail, and his brother was sent out two or three times for milk. Mr. D said that the change was a good one and he felt much better for it. Shortly after I learned that the so-called milk was just about half brandy, and that fellow was still in a half-drunken condition all day. As things went on from bad to worse I made up my mind that we had better get rid of him."

In his autobiography Maxim wrote that he had a plan to improve the quality of carbon filament by heating them in the presence of gasoline. Supposedly he talked to Schuyler, who was impressed with the plan. Maxim goes on to say:
"At this time Mr. D was working on a lamp in which carbons were heated in an atmosphere of nitrogen, a system which I knew could not possibly succeed. Mr. D was, however, a very plausible talker. He laughed at my plan, saying that it was the most absurd he had ever heard of, and in my absence he had a very serious talk with Mr. Schuyler. He said: 'There is no doubt but that Maxim is a very skilful and rapid draughtsman, but he knows absolutely nothing of electricity or chemistry.' He told Schuyler that gasoline vapours were about as explosive as nitro-glycerine, and that to heat a carbon white-hot, in an atmosphere of such vapours, could have but one result—a terrific explosion. He said he would not remain in the building if such experiments were to be made, as it was altogether too dangerous, and he felt sure that the owners of the building would never consent to have such dangerous experiments made on their premises.

"Schuyler was somewhat frightened, but I told him that the quantity of gasoline vapour in a lamp would be infinitesimal, and that gasoline vapours could not possibly explode except in the presence of a large quantity of oxygen gas. However, it was no use: my theory appeared to them to be ridiculous. Nevertheless, Schuyler consented that I should apply for a patent on the principle of preserving and building up carbons in an incandescent lamp by heating them electrically in an attenuated atmosphere of hydrocarbon vapours, and this patent was filed at the Patent Office ahead of all others.

"I knew I was right and was determined to convince Schuyler that I was right. Quite true, I was not what could be considered a professional chemist, but I knew all the chemistry connected with hydro-carbon explosions; and after a good deal of trouble I got Schuyler to consent that some experiments should be made. In the meantime, Schuyler had become disgusted with Mr. D, who was always drunk, and discharged him...

"Maxim sought the advice of two professors and one 'wrote an article for one of the scientific papers, stating that he had seen me deposit carbon that was hard enough to scratch glass, and that this took place in the dense vapours of gasoline without the least sign of an explosion.' This was very soon brought to the notice of Mr. D. who, not knowing that I had applied for a patent on the process, applied for a patent on a process of building up carbons by heating them in oil, such as salad oil, or other carbonaceous material. His claim was a very broad one, and, of course, later on, an interference was declared.

"...when the interference was declared I simply went in and told my story, leaving the rest to the lawyers. But Mr. D. swore that he had invented the same thing years before, and got his father and his brother to swear to it. He thus beat me in the Patent Office and deprived me of a patent that was worth at least a million dollars a year.

"But everything was not smooth sailing by any means for Mr. D. He went to the Patent Office at Washington, abstracted a patent, made an alteration in the drawings and returned it. This being discovered gave him a very black eye at the Patent Office. Later on, he had a quarrel with a Captain Steel, whom he shot in the face with a revolver, doing him very serious injury. There was, however, a woman in the case. Mr. D was arrested, and when the case came into court he claimed that he had acted in self-defence, although he admitted that he had fired the first and only shot. Mr. D had several witnesses who swore that they had seen the encounter, but it transpired that they all happened to be telegraph operators, and the judge discovered that when these witnesses were on the stand, Mr. D was communicating with them by a species of telegraphy which he had invented for the purpose. He was convicted and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, but he had influential friends who had invested money in his alleged invention, and they obtained a stay of execution, so that Mr. D. was out of prison for a considerable time.

"I went to one of the high officials of New York City and told him that Mr. D., although convicted, was still out of prison. He admitted that it was a disgrace, a miscarriage of justice, and promised to see to it that the fellow was put where he belonged. When, however, an attempt was made to send him to prison, he pretended to be very ill and his doctor certified that he could not be moved from his bed without fatal results. Physicians, representing the law, visited Mr. D. and found that he was really suffering from a severe irritation of the stomach and bowels, but as it was necessary to keep this up he took a little too much acid one day and died of peritonitis.

Maxim went on to conclude that Mr. D obtained his patent by fraud. There is another version of the development of the hydrocarbon treating process that should be told. Woodbury, in his book12, points out that Weston was actually the first one to develop the hydrocarbon process even though at the end of the litigations he lost out. Indeed, the development of the tamidine filament by Weston was also a significant step toward a uniform filament.

Maxim was, however, a prolific inventor, garnering 122 United States patents and 149 in Great Britain11. His lamp-related U.S. patents, starting in the year 1878, are listed in the section below.

These patents consisted of lamp designs of incandescent and arc lamps as well as manufacturing methods. At the time of application of his last patent that dealt with a lamp subject (Jan 5 1899), Maxim was still a citizen of the United States but he resided at 18 Queens Gate Place, London, in the County of Middlesex, England. Maxim was naturalized as a British subject in 1900 and was knighted in 190111. The first page of Maxim's U.S. patent 230,310, issued Jul 20 1880 is shown below. The object of the patent was to form a better electrical contact between the carbon conductor and the lead wire. It claimed a continuous carbon conductor, with flattened ends for connection, with one or more soft carbon washers interposed between the conductor and the metallic connection. Platinum washers were also used. In the drawing the body, B, is the conductor, l and k are the platinum washers, m and m are the washers of soft carbon, o is a platinum screw or bolt, t is a nut, and c is the lead wire. Maxim preferred to make the carbon washers out of carbonized blotting paper.

  1. US 208,252 - 1878
  2. US 230,310 - 1880
  3. US 230,953 - 1880
  4. US 230,309 - 1880
  5. US 234,835 - 1880
  6. US 247,380 - 1881
  7. US 237,198 - 1881
  8. US 244,277 - 1881
  9. US 247,083 - 1881
  10. US 247,084 - 1881
  11. US 247,085 - 1881
  12. US 277,846 - 1883
  13. US 283,629 - 1883
  14. US 405,239 - 1889
  15. US 405,170 - 1889
  16. US 618,703 - 1899
  17. US 618,704 - 1899

  1. "Hiram Stevens Maxim", The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol.VI, 1896, p.34.
  2. "Maxim Produces a New Incandescent Lamp", Electrical Review, Vo.31 No.9, Sep 1 1897, p.101.
  3. "The New Maxim Lamp and American Incandescent Lamps Compared", J.H. Rhotehamel, The Electrical Engineer, Vol.XXIV No.490, Sep 23 1897, p.280.
  4. "The New Maxim Incandescent Lamp", Hiram S. Maxim, Electrical Review, Vol.31 No.22, Dec 1 1897, p.260.
  5. "The Maxim High Resistance Thick Filament Lamp", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.XXIV No.500, Dec 2 1897, p.533.
  6. "Maxim Incandescent Lamp" (Digest), Electrical World, Vol.XXXI No.6, Feb 5 1898, pg.194.
  7. "Maxim Incandescent Lamp" (Digest), Electrical World, Vol.XXXII No.14, Oct 1 1898, pg.349.
  8. "My Life", 2nd Edition, Sir Hiram S. Maxim, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1915.
  9. "Sir Hiram Maxim, Gun Inventor, Dies", The New York Times, Nov 25 1916, p.13, col.3.
  10. "Obituary Notice, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim", The Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.55, 1917, p.545.
  11. "Hiram Stevens Maxim", Dictionary of American Biography, Vol.XII, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1933, p.436.
  12. "A Measure for Greatness - A Short Biography of Edward Weston", David O. Woodbury, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, 1949.
  13. "The Electrical Manufacturers 1875-1900 — A Study in Competition, Entrepreneurship, Technical Change, and Economic Growth", Harold C. Passer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1953.
  14. "A Streak of Luck", Robert Conot, Seaview Books, New York, 1979.
  15. "Sir Hiram Maxim", American National Biography, Vol.14, 1999, p.751.
  16. "Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim", The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition, Vol.18, Grolier, 2002, p.531.
  17. "Sir Hiram (Stevens) Maxim", The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.7, Chicago, 2002, p.963.

  18. "Biography of Irving Langmuir", in The Electric Incandescent Lamp 1880-1925, E.J. Covington, printed by GE Lighting NELA Press, Cleveland OH, 1998, p.138.