While his name might not be as well-known as Alexander Graham Bell or George Washington Carver, Hudson Maxim was a significant American inventor, chemist and author. Called “the most versatile man in America” by none other than Thomas Edison, Maxim invented smokeless gunpowder and a variety of other explosives — many of which were used extensively during World War I.
This article appeared in shortly after Maxim’s death on May 6, 1927, at age 74.
Hudson Maxim: Destroyer and lover of life
A walking paradox masked in bushy whiskers, he anticipated some of Einstein’s deductions by almost a generation, and yet was sufficiently detached to “engage vociferously in borough politics.”
His warmest admirers freely admit that he loved the limelight and always dramatized himself as protagonist of the scene — “every pose a picture,” as the old footlights slang had it — yet they point to the solid achievements of the man, to his highly original productiveness and brilliantly speculative mind, as beyond all reproach of attitudinizing. He had, as one of his many editorial elegiasts puts it, “an enormous capacity for living;” and that explains how it was that he “could invent deadly explosives, and also dress up as King Neptune for an Atlantic City beauty pageant.”
No wonder it can be said, as by this commentator in the editorial columns of the Newark Evening News: “Fundamentally his was a fine intellect — yet people never took him quite seriously.” Perhaps because he had what the head-line on this editorial calls a “playboy complex,” or perhaps because he sought to diffuse himself over such a variety of fields. A jump from torpedoes to the science of poetry, for instance, may have bewildered some onlookers. There was something almost Rooseveltian in the happy confidence with which Mr Maxim tackled every theme that excited his interest, and discoursed in tones of authority upon it.
As described by the writer already quoted, he was “as picturesque in character as in personal appearance;” hence, “strangers seeing Hudson Maxim for the first time felt sure he was Somebody before learning his identity. He had a compelling presence, a sonorous voice, and a cock-o’-the walk method of speaking. When he took up a cause, he took it up with both hands and hurled it into the faces of his adversaries. He was like the man of whom it was said ‘You can hear him coming before he gets started.'”
Tracing some of his characteristics to childhood influences, the editorial runs on:
“Maxim had to fight for everything life gave him. As a child he knew hunger and cold. He literally wrested an education from an adverse fate. As a result, he was a fighter all his life. If the fight was for some big thing, like his claim to the invention of smokeless powder, he liked it; if the fight was for some little thing, like domination of Hoptacong Borough Council, he liked it just the same. A fight was always a fight.
“He led the battle to save Lake Hoptacong from possible exploitation as a water supply. He invented hundreds of mechanical appliances, some of which enriched others, but not himself. He was strong and brave; lacking a hand, he still saved two girls from drowning. He quarreled with his brother Hiram; but Hiram’s son loved him. A strange medley; but most of his notes were sweet.”