Hiram Stevens Maxim

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Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840–1914), American inventor living in England, notorious for inventing the Maxim gun, also worked on aviation as a member of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain.

His brother, Hudson Maxim was also involved in aeronautics, among other scientific and literary interests.

Early work in aeronautics

Maxim inherited an interest in aeronautics to his father, who, he writes, was working on a helicopter design in 1856. The son began working on the same problem in 1872 and created his own helicopter design with "widely separated" screws. The main problem he describes running up against is heaviness of engine. He takes some credit for developing the modern type:[1]

[...] it is very gratifying to me to know that all the successful flying machines of to-day are built on the lines which I had thought out at that time, and found to be the best. All have superposed airplanes of great length from port to starboard, all have fore and aft horizontal rudders, and all are driven with screw propellers. The change from my model is only a change in the framework made possible by dispensing with the boiler, water tank, and steam engine.

Aircraft tests

Maxim wrote that "several wealthy gentlemen" approached him 1887 to ask if he could build a flying machine. He said he needed five years and ₤100,000. He used a whirling arm with 200' circumference, capable of 80mph in testing his designs. His experiments were well-publicized.[2][3]

Later he commented on his study process at the time:[3]

I found that there was a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the action of aeroplanes and also of screws working in the air. I procured all the literature available on the subject, both English and French, and attempted to make a thorough study of the question; but i was not satisfied, on account of the wide difference in the views of the rwiters and the conflicting formulæ that were employed. I therefore decided to make experiments myself, and to ascertain what could be done without the use of anybody's formula.

After a series of whirling arm tests:[4]

I appreciated fully that I had made a machine that lifted 2,000 lbs. more than its own weight, and I knew for a dead certainty if I took the matter up again, got rid of my boiler and water tank, and used an internal combustion engine, such as I thought I could produce, that mechanical flight would soon be a fait accompli.

Maxim with engine in the 1896 Aeronautical Annual.

Chanute reprinted a letter from Maxim to the New York Times in November 1890:[5]

I would say that among the large number of societies to which I belong in England, the Aeronautical Society is one, and need I say that I am the most active member? At the present moment experiments are being conducted by me at Baldwin's Park, Bexley, Kent, England, with a view of finding out exactly what the supporting power of a plane is when driven through the air at a slight angle from the horizontal. For this purpose I constructed a very elaborate apparatus, provided with a great number of instruments, and arranged in such a manner that I can ascertain accurately the 'efficiency of a screw working in air. the amount of power required to drive a screw, the amount of push developed by a screw, the amount of slip, and also the power required for propelling planes through the air when placed at different angles, as well as to ascertain the friction and all other phenomena connected with the subject. I have been experimenting with motors and have succeeded in making them so that they will develop I horse power for every 6 lbs. My experiments show that as much as 133 lbs. may be sustained in the air by the expenditure of 1 horse power; of course. it is premature now to express any opinion; still, if I am not very much mistaken, and if some new phenomenon, which I do not understand, does not prevent it, I think I stand a fair chance of solving the problem, and I think I can assert that within a very few years some one--if not myself, somebody else--will have made a machine which can be guided through the air, will travel with considerable velocity and will be sufficiently under control to be used for military purposes. I have found in my experiments that it is necessary to have a speed of at least 30 miles per hour, that 50 miles is still more favorable, and that 100 miles would seem to be attainable. Everything seems to be in favor of high speed.

Whether I succeed or not, the results of my experiments will be published, and as I am the only man who has ever tried the experiments in a thorough manner with delicate and accurate apparatus, the data which I shall be able to furnish will be of much greater value to experimenters hereafter than all that has ever been published before.

Maxim developed a steam-powered aircraft with a 48' main aeroplane and five pairs of wings. He subsequently built a larger version 100' long and 35' tall. The 363-horsepower engine used petroleum to power two helical propellers at 400 rpm.[6]

On 31 July 1894, Maxim tested the latter craft, which briefly lifted from tracks up into the air, when a propeller broke and forced an immediate landing.[7][8] The wheels of this machine were fitted with dynagraphs to measure load.[9] (By another account Maxim landed deliberately to avoid an unexpected and dangerous uncontrolled flight.)[10]

In 1896, he built the world's largest wind tunnel, 12' x 3' x 3', with a 100 horsepower steam engine capable of producing 50mph wind.[11]

Eager produce empirical data about friction, lift, and drift, he conducted tests using aeroplanes of different materials, including a smooth (low-friction) brass plane, 1 foot in width.[12]

Later work

He testified on the future of flight before a subcommittee of Britain's Committee of Imperial Defense.[13]

In 1909, Maxim left his munitions company for a new aeronautics company called the Grahame-White, Blériot, and Maxim Company with ₤200,000 total authorized capital.[14]

Also in 1909 Maxim published Artificial and Natural Flight, a book on the mechanics of flight which stridently asserts the wrongness and even absurdity of much contemporary aeronautical physics.[15]

Patents whose inventor or applicant is Hiram Stevens Maxim or H. S. Maxim

Publications by or about Hiram Stevens Maxim or H. S. Maxim

Letters sent by Hiram Stevens Maxim or H. S. Maxim

Aero-related publications


  • Hiram Stevens Maxim on Wikipedia
  • Maxim's autobiography, My Life (1915) at the Internet Archive
  • Malcolm W. Browne, "100 Years of Maxim's 'Killing Machine'", New York Times, 26 November 1985 ("Maxim's airplane might well have flown before that of the Wright brothers, had it been powered by something lighter than a steam engine.")

Other data

  • Address in 1897: 18, Queen's Gate Place, County of Middlesex

Names Hiram Stevens Maxim; H. S. Maxim
Birth date
Death date
Countries US, GB
Occupations engineer
Tech areas Heavier-than-air, Propulsion, Engine, Motor, Petroleum, acetylene, Frame
Affiliations Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, Vickers, Sons, and Maxim
Wikidata id


  1. Maxim, 1909, Artificial and Natural Flight, pp. v–viii.
  2. Hallion, 2003, pp. 140–141.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Maxim, 1909, Artificial and Natural Flight, pp. 31–33; 62.
  4. Maxim, 1909, Artificial and Natural Flight, p. 75.
  5. Octave Chanute, Progress in Flying Machines (1894), Aeroplanes: Part XVI. Hallion, 2003, p. 140 reproduces some of this from Chanute. Database searches don't immediately reveal this letter; perhaps due to unreliable scanning.
  6. Banet-Rivet, 1898, L'Aéronautique, pp. 205–206.
  7. Hallion, 2003, p. 143.
  8. Zahm, 1944, p. 330. "In 1894 Maxim carried over 10,000 pounds off a level track in a steam multiplane having ample power but defective control. It flew some 300 feet with a crew of 3 men. With all accessories (boilers, pumps, generators, condensers, cooling water) his engines weighed but 8 pounds per horsepower. Had he copied Goupil's version of Henson's transport plane, he might have inaugurated the grand sport of exhibition stunts before the gasoline engine was well developed by the automotive industry."
  9. Scott, 1995, p. 102.
  10. Black, 1943, p. 37. "A speed of around 40 to 42 miles per hour was attained, whereupon the lifting effort of the huge craft became so great that it carried away a portion of the guard rail intended to keep it from making a free flight. Rather than risk a flight before he had everything properly prepared, Maxim sacrificed ambition to discretion and cu off the steam."
  11. Hallion, 2003, p. 144.
  12. Maxim, 1909, Artificial and Natural Flight, pp. 3–4.
  13. Hallion, 2003, p. 145.
  14. "Maxim leads air company", New York Times, 29 March 1911.
  15. See page 1 for a good example.