Who was Hudson Maxim? A look back at the inventor whose name has been lost to time

Hudson Maxim and Thomas Edison-001

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While his name might not be as well-known as Alexander Graham Bell or George Washington Carver, Hudson Maxim was an important American inventor, chemist and author.

Called “the most versatile man in America” by none other than Thomas Edison — as seen above — Maxim invented smokeless gunpowder and a variety of other high explosives — many of which were used extensively during World War I.

This article appeared shortly after Maxim’s death on May 6, 1927, at age 74.

Hudson Maxim

Hudson Maxim: Destroyer and lover of life (1927)

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.

Inventor Hudson Maxim

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.” (Seen below.)

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.”

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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.

Neptune (Hudson Maxim), Miss America (Margaret Gorman) 1922

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.

Hudson Maxim and Thomas Edison

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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.”

Hudson Maxim 1927

Smokeless powder made (1968)

By E. Burke Maloney

Seventy-odd years ago Maxim, a peaceful hamlet in Howell Township, became a boom town in more ways than one.

This tiny community, two miles south of Farmingdale and west of Allaire State Park, was the site of a dynamite and powder mill. On at least four occasions the pine-scented welkin rang with thunderous peals in accidental explosions.

Although working there was fraught with pert there was only one death during the 10 years the plant operated. Several men were injured in blasts, however.

The man responsible for this Vulcan’s Workshop was Hudson Maxim for whom the place took its name. It was in this Monmouth County farmland that he invented smoke-less powder and other innovations in munitions.

His brother, Sir Hiram Maxim, was the originator in England of the machine gun, which was called the Maxim gun. It was a single-barreled, water-cooled weapon, cocked by the force of its recoil. This gun was the difference between victory and defeat for the British in putting down the Egyptian uprising in 1884.

Hudson Maxim was one of eight children born to a poor farm family in Maine. They were so poor that he couldn’t go to school until he was old enough to earn money to buy his Docks. After his education in the Wesleyan Seminary e entered the publishing business.

He made the big decision in 1888 when he became the American agent for the Maxim-Nordenfelt Gun and Ammunition Co. of London which was selling the machine gun invented by his older brother.

While in England that year he obtained a few grains of the secret French smokeless powder from a former French artilleryman employed by his brother.

Smokeless powder required a propellant which would give lower pressures than black powder.

Back in the United States, he kept experimenting and in 1890 formed the Maxim Powder and Torpedo Co. The Monmouth County plant was built in 1894.

The formula which finally suited him consisted of 9 percent nitroglycerin, 1 per cent urea, 82 percent guncotton, and 8 percent solvent pyroxylin. The powder was made by rolling, with acetate used as an assisting agent.

Only samples were made at this plant. The multiperforated powder grain originated there.

In 1896 Maxim sold his patents to the E.I. du Pont deNemours Co., for $200,000 and the land and buildings to the Dittmar Powder Co. which had a dynamite plant on adjoining land.

The smokeless powder equipment remained idle until the Spanish-American War when Dittmar offered it to the War Department and got a contract to manufacture it. Dittmar sold out to the Eastern Dynamite Co. in 1899.

One of Maxim’s accomplishments was the perfection in 1894 of a fulminating or priming composition for shells and torpedo fuses. The Navy used it for a brief time.

Also developed at the Maxim plant was Stabilite, a plastic mixture which could be rolled into sheets on hot rolls as with cellulose. No solvent was required and it was ready for use as soon as it was rolled out. The rights were purchased by duPont.

Maxim frequently used the big Coast Artillery guns at Ft. Hancock on Sandy Hook for testing his high explosive Maximite. He sold the secret to the U.S. in 1901. The government bought 75,000 pounds for further tests but discontinued them after a premature explosion wrecked a 12-inch gun and mount.

It also was at Sandy Hook that the first real success with a high explosive shell was obtained in 1901 by Maxim. A 12-inch armor-piercing shell was fired through a 12-inch armor plate and detonated on the far side.

Maxim also developed a system of driving torpedoes by steam and the product of a self-combustible compound called Motorite. The steam was generated by the Motorite. The Navy bought this.

Maxim wasn’t the only explosives plant in the area. Besides Dittmar’s, there was the Phoenix black powder plant about a mile north of Farmingdale, the U.S. Dynamite and Chemical Co. at Toms River, and the Independent Powder Co. at Whiting in Manchester Township, Ocean County. The Maxim plant embraced 200 acres and consisted of four large buildings and several smaller ones. These were destroyed in a forest fire in 1927.

Maxim didn’t spend all of his time with explosives. He was the author of ‘‘Defenceless America,” which urged more military might and which was made into a patriotic motion picture just be- fore the U.S. entered World War I. At the other extreme, he wrote a guidebook on how to compose poetry.

His brother Hiram renounced his American citizenship and became a British subject because he felt his native country had treated him unfairly in regard to his inventions. Queen Victoria knighted him in 1901 and he died in 1916 at the age of 76.

Before Hudson Maxim died at 74 in 1927 at his home at Maxim Park at Lake Hopatcong, he was experimenting with something vastly different from explosives. He called it Maximfeast. It was a new army field ration.

Maxim’s maxim might well be that of Oliver Cromwell: “The Man-of-War is the best ambassador.”

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