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Entrepreneurship: A study in innovation and determination
by H. Randall Goldsmith, Ph.D.

Your life long dream of being a contestant on the Jeopardy quiz show is finally a reality. The contest is close and you select “technology for $100.” The quiz show’s host reads the statement, “The first person to file a patent on the light bulb on October 5, 1878?” You answer with a knowing smile, “Who was Thomas Alva Edison!” Buzz. Wrong. “The correct answer is Hiram Maxim. Hmmm?

It is your turn again. You select “technology for $200.” Alex reads the statement, “The first person to fly an airplane.” Again, you answer with a knowing smile, “Who were the Wright brothers!” Buzz. Wrong. The correct answer is Hiram Maxim. Hmmm?

It is your turn again: “Technology for $300.” “This inventor’s machine guns were mounted on World War I British airplanes.” Not having a clue, you think for a moment and answer, “Hiram Maxim.” Alex exclaims, “Correct for $300! You are the new winner!”

Oh well, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart.

When you get home, you decide to check out this fellow Hiram Maxim. You discover in Invention & Technology’s Great Inventions That Changed the World that Hiram was a remarkable inventor. He filed his patent on the light bulb one day before Edison. Unfortunately for Hiram, Edison received the patent. Perhaps it was because Edison enjoyed a certain amount of name recognition with the patent office after receiving 1093 patents – still a record. In spite of not getting the patent, it did not stop Hiram Maxim from creating his own electric utility company, U.S. Electric Lighting Company—eventually taken over by Westinghouse.

Maxim moved to Europe to pursue new opportunities and achieved no small acclaim when he applied the steam engine principles he learned as a boy in Maine to a new endeavor – the machine gun. His 1880 prototype based on the concept of a two-stroke engine was powered by its recoil, fed by a cartridge belt, water-cooled and fired 600 rounds a minute.

To overcome the blinding cloud of smoke created by the black powder shells, he invented a smokeless powder by combining nitroglycerin and guncotton. Queen Victoria eventually knighted him in appreciation for the gun’s performance in British combat engagements.

Perhaps the most remarkable of Hiram Maxim’s accomplishments was his airplane. Encouraged and financed by the British government in response to one of Hiram’s more braggadocios predictions that airplanes would one day fly over the indomitable British fleet to bomb London, he set to test the aerodynamic properties and power requirements for an aircraft.

After three years of work, Hiram built a state of the art, lightweight steam engines that generated 150 horsepower to drive the props with a thrust of 2,000 pounds. The engine sat in the middle of the plane with the boiler and oil burners in the nose. The biplane was 126 feet long with a wingspan of 104 feet and a height of 36 feet. The craft weighed more than 7,000 pounds, but it flew! On July 31, 1894, Hiram and two passengers flew the plane a distance of 600 feet at an altitude just a few feet off the ground before it crashed. This accomplishment preceded the Wright Brothers stupendous accomplishment at Kitty Hawk by more than a decade.

While he never enjoyed the fame of the Wright Brothers or Edison, his partners bought him out and created Vickers, Ltd., the company that built the British Spitfires that fought the Battle for Britain. The Spitfires were armed with Hiram’s deadly machine guns.

John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston College of Engineering notes the name Maxim is one that reoccurs in the study of technology. We now are familiar with the efforts of Hiram Maxim. His brother, Hudson Maxim, was no stranger to technological innovation.

Hudson, the eldest of the two brothers, achieved a level of notoriety by developing military explosives. If we could bottle the quality that made the Maxim brothers such prolific developers of new technology, we probably could sell it for much profit. The fact is that certain members of society are inclined to be innovative. Even if they wind up “second best” in some of their endeavors, their influence is felt far beyond their productive years.

Hiram and Hudson Maxim are two such examples.