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!