Book Review: A Genius in the Family

A Genius in the Family - by Hiram Percy MaximHiram Stevens Maxim is one of America’s less recognized polymath inventors, and quite a character in addition to all his quantifiable accomplishments. Starting live on a rural Maine farm, Maxim had only a few years of formal schooling (as was fairly common with our ground-breaking inventors). While best known for creating the world’s first truly effective machine gun, Maxim also was quite involved in many other technological areas, including powered flight and electric lighting (he came very close to beating Edison for invention of the first incandescent light bulb). However, Maxim’s personality was far from perfect – he was often thoughtless, vulgar, and had a penchant for practical jokes that could something cross the line into cruelty.

A Genius In The Family is a series of anecdotes about Maxim’s family life as told by his eldest son, Hiram Percy Maxim (a notable figure in his own right, as inventor of the Maxim Silencer and founder of the ARRL). The book is short and contains not a word about the Maxim Gun, but instead gives us an intimate perspective that is rarely found from notable historical figures.

Through Percy’s experience, one gets a much more complete view of Maxim than a study of his work will provide, both the good and the bad. Percy (as he was called by his family) recounts many memorable incidents from his life from age 4 to about 12 (when Maxim basically abandoned his family to live in England with his secretary), and shows us how the quirks of Maxim’s tenacity, wit, intelligence, humor, disregard for other people, and impulsiveness came together to create a complete person.

One of the first stories is about a local druggist in Brooklyn who kept a small pet white dog in his shop, when Percy frequently found himself (at age 5 or so). After repeated harassment by Percy wanting to be given the dog, the druggist “relents” and offers to trade it to Percy in exchange for a penny with heads on both sides. Percy, of course, does not realize such a thing doesn’t exist, and excitedly asks Maxim to check his pocket change for such a coin. Maxim acts mildly surprised that he does not have one after a brief inspection, and promises to look for one the next day at work. Instead, he has a lathe worker in his shop face the tails off two pennies and braze the heads together into a new coin, which he and Percy then take to the druggist.

In a rather less endearing moment, Maxim decided to play a cruel joke on the family’s cook, after reading something on the topic of how extreme the touch of a very cold object felt indistinguishable from a very hot one. He lay a fireplace poker to chill outside in a mixture of snow and alcohol, and then made a bit of a show of heating another poker red-hot in the kitchen where the cook, a young Irish girl, was working. He slipped out and switched pokers, and returned making comments about how cattle were branded with red-hot iron. When the girl’s back was turned, he pressed the freezing poker against the back of her neck – which she naturally assumed was being terribly burned. It took Maxim and his wife some time to convince her that no harm had been done, and she packed her belongings and quit on the spot.

A passage that I found particularly endearing came when Maxim’s daughter Florence was deemed by her schoolmaster to be “mentally defective” because of a lack of success with arithmetic. Maxim would have none of this, and initially had to be persuaded not to take the matter up directly – and probably with some violence, as Maxim was a strong and physically imposing man – with the schoolmaster. When talked out of that option, he instead spent the evening brilliantly instilling a great interest in the subject in the girl, who would go on to graduate a 4-year high school course at the top of virtually every class. Percy explains to evening in some detail, and Maxim’s ability to draw Florence’s attention and curiosity into the topic is a work of art.

I could go on with examples – Percy’s writing draws one in and remains engrossing throughout the work – but I will leave the rest of the story for him to tell. If you want to take a step beyond his gun and learn about the character of Hiram Stevens Maxim, you will find no better resource than his son’s A Genius in the Family.

While the work is not currently in print, there are numerous copies available on Amazon, as it has been reprinted several times since the original 1936 edition. Prices start at $5 as of this writing, and those copies will certainly be sold quickly, so act now if you would like one!


  1. “Maxim also was quite involved in many other technological areas, including powered flight and electric lighting (he came very close to beating Edison for invention of the first incandescent light bulb”).

    Some say Maxim beat Edison. Apparently Edison may have felt that way as well because he paid off Maxim to leave the country in a settlement along with a non-competition requirement clause. That’s why he was in England.

    Anyone remember Maxim Mufflers?

      • More to the point, neither Edison nor Maxim “invented the incandescent light bulb”. It had been invented by others a number of years before hand. Edison and Maxim were both in fact rather late to the game. What Edison and Maxim both did was to develop (and patent) certain detailed improvements to it which made the filaments last longer and easier to manufacture. In addition, Edison applied his business skill in building up a profitable electric light business. Edison bought out Maxims patents, but he also bought out the patents of other people as well. Joseph Swan was another very important pioneer in this field.

        Edison’s and Maxim’s (and Swan’s) incandescent bulbs used carbon filament which had a lot of shortcomings. The type of incandescent bulb with a tungsten filament which we use today though was invented and commercialized in Hungary.

        I’m bringing these points up not to rubbish Edison or Maxim, but because the story of the light bulb is so much like the story of firearms. In firearms it can be very difficult to prove that any specific person “invented” a specific important innovation in a moment of brilliance. Instead what tends to happen is that you find that lots of other people were working in very similar things at the same time, and the person we call the “inventor” just happens to be the one who came up with a slightly better version and (equally important) was able to sell it to a firearms manufacturer (or other customer).

        In many cases it turns out that what was holding back something from being “invented” wasn’t an “inventor” to dream up the idea, it was the manufacturing or materials technology needed to make the idea practical. Once a field becomes ripe for development, numerous inventors will be drawn in to work on it. In the case of the light bulb it was limitations in vacuum pump technology that had held things back. For repeating firearms, it was the metallurgy and manufacturing technology needed to make durable and inexpensive cartridge cases.

        Advances in manufacturing technology has had great influence on the direction of firearms development, and it’s something we should keep in mind when evaluating designs.

        • Manufacturing technology is a fascinating part of firearm history. It seems like things have gone from forging and machining (using hand made tools and fixtures on basic machine tools), to figuring out that is too expensive and slow and therefore going to stampings, rivets, and welds, and then figuring out that constrained designs and durability and therefore going with castings, metal injection moldings and CNC.

          In the US, for example, there are several times more companies making AR-15’s today than there were companies making guns of any kind twenty years ago.

          Remington stole market share from Winchester years ago by designing the easy to build 870 which toppled the nightmare to build model 12, and by introducing the lathe friendly 700 which toppled the model 70. More recently, Ruger took market share from everyone by making traditional looking arms that were made non-traditionally (metal injection molding, welding, stamings, investment castings, etc.). Most recently Kimber unseated Colt in the 1911 market by using modern CNC to keep tolerances in control and to put custom features on standard guns.

          It is irrelevant now, but civilian arms manufacturing methods (thus design) probably influenced US military arms design in the past when the major civilian arms manufacturers (Remington, Winchester, Savage, H&R, etc.) were depended on to ramp up arms production during war when the Government-owned Springfield Armory would be pushed beyond capacity.

          • The point being that going from forgings to castings, and from warehouses full of shapers and mills to a few CNC centers (that change their own tooling, inspect their own parts, have multiple axis, etc.) is what has allowed the massive number of firearm companies today in the US compared to 20 years ago.

            MIM, casting, and CNC also enables less costly manufacture of traditional designs. Of course, there are limits, e.g., no one has figured out how to affordable make the Savage 99, and Ian had an episode (on Gun Lab?) where the challenges of making a gun part (with multiple angles and projections) were demonstrated even when modern manufacturing was available.

        • Excellent analysis with relevant observations, especially concerning the state of manufacturing technology and its ability ( or inability ) to take full advantage of a new design’s features at a given period in time.

          Your comments about Edison, Maxim and company regarding electrically-related inventions and designs also reminds me of how under-rated and less well-acknowledged Tesla is today compared to Edison, even though he came up with so many ideas and inventions that were, frankly, better than Edison’s from a technical standpoint. Edison was, however, a more driven and ambitious individual with a head for the intricacies of business, which enabled him to get ahead commercially.

  2. Don’t know about Maxim Mufflers, but a few years ago, I noticed that we had Maxim brand light-bulbs in our house. You can still get them here in England, apparently. “Sir Hiram Maxim’s Flying Machines” amusement-park ride is still running in Blackpool Pleasure Beach too. Much as I like boomsticks, I’m glad Maxim’s name is still remembered, not solely for the horrors of trench warfare, but for something fun and frivolous as well.

    Worth noting too, that on, you can get “A Genius In The Family” on Kindle for the sum total of 77 pence!

  3. I remember reading that Maxim also enjoyed going into bars, picking out the local bar bully and beating the snot out of him…kinda like the scene in ‘The Sheepman’ with Glen Ford (1958), where he picks on Mickey Shaughnessy (puts his cigar out in Shaughnessy’s mashed potatoes) and kicks his ass.

    CB in FL

    • While the book doesn’t mention anything like that (probably because the author was only 12 when Maxim left for England, and wouldn’t have been going to bars with his father), I can definitely see it happening. There is an incident recalled in the book where Maxim was mugged on 58th Street in New York, and wound up physically heaving the assailant over a fence into a vacant lot.

  4. Micki Mahoney just jolted my memory — I distinctly remember Maxim brand light bulbs being used at home when I was growing up, and also seeing them in lighting fixtures in the workplace.

    It is good that the human side of Hiram Maxim is more clearly revealed by this account from his son. Too often, we forget to try and understand and accept others wholistically as complete human beings, with all the positive characteristics, foibles and faults this entails.

    A case in point is the penchant of the general public for hero worship and the establishment of icons. In elevating someone to that level and putting him or her on a pedestal, we are actually doing that individual potentially grievious harm, because he or she is now expected to constantly live up to a set of expectations and standards that are almost impossible to achieve. The result is extremely stressful and few are able to successfully deal with the limelight on a long-term basis. We should certainly recognize and acknowledge the deeds of “heroes” and “heroines” who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, we should never forget them and we should treat them with the proper respect due any human being, but we must avoid subjecting them to the inhumanity of hero worship.

  5. I think Jacob Morgan has summed up the issue of manufacturing technology concerning firearms production very well.

    As in most other fields of engineering and technology, manufacturing processes ( including CNC machining, CAD /CAM, tool and die making, investment casting, forging, metal injection molding, 3-D modeling, et. al. ) tend to be overshadowed in the public mind by the glamour and razzle-dazzle of design. However, no design, no matter how revolutionary or sound, is worth much until it can be translated into an actual, practical, working, concrete entity. All the fine theories and concepts out there are exactly that — just theories and concepts — and little more unless they can be made tangible and applicable.

  6. William Cantello and Hiram Maxim are they the same man?

    Late in the 19th century strange noises could be heard from a cellar beneath a pub near the Southampton docks. It was rumoured that gun maker William Cantelo was inventing a rapid firing gun, capable of destroying the enemy and certain to make its inventor very rich.

    Eventually William Cantelo emerged from his cellar with the news that his invention was complete and that he was going to take a much needed holiday, which he did, taking his new invention with him. But that was the last his family saw of him, “he simply vanished into the void.”

    William Cantello and Hiram Maxim are they the same man?

    BBC Radio –

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