Ready, Aim, Shoot
The Maxim family's severe faces are nearly as powerful as the deadly machine in this family portrait from 1898.
Taking a family portrait is never an easy assignment for a hired photographer, but Livermore Falls cameraman F. A. Wendell probably found capturing the Maxim family back in 1898 especially challenging because of the prop the family chose to pose with. For it was Hiram Maxim, seated at left, who had invented the machine gun in the foreground some fourteen years before this photograph was taken at a family reunion in Wayne. It was therefore fitting that the inventor and his family should choose to include the most powerful weapon in the world in their portrait. Maxim's invention of the machine gun revolutionized the way wars have been fought ever since, and the ferocious machine had as much a place in the family photograph as Maxim's brother, Samuel, standing at center.
The photographer has artfully arranged the family, seating Maxim so that he does not tower over his less than five-foot-tall mother and positioning Maxim's wife, Sarah Haynes, at far right in what seems a strategic distance from the rest of the family. (Then again, perhaps she was the only person willing to stand so perilously close to the gun's water-jacketed barrel!) Perhaps Wendell asked Samuel to place his hand on the breech of the gun to improve his composition, an interesting twist since Hiram and his other brother, Hudson, were locked in a debate over the ownership of a smokeless ammunition powder they'd invented for .303-caliber shells. The only person out of place is the unidentified, slack-jawed youngster at far left who has wandered into the frame.
Just a few years after this photograph was made Maxim, who had moved to England in 1881, became a British citizen and was knighted for creating the gun that helped defend the empire's interests around the globe. Never mind that a full nine years before the Wright brothers, the genius from Sangerville had built a powered aircraft that flew six hundred feet before crashing. Or that he had developed a carbon filament that rivaled Edison's in the quest for the electric light bulb. The Maine inventor lamented that his scores of more peaceful inventions, including a steam-inhaler for bronchitis sufferers such as himself, earned him scant praise compared to the weapon of war shown here. "It will be seen that it is a very credible thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering," Maxim wrote before his death in 1916.
In this remarkable photograph, though, the photographer may have inadvertently left one subtle clue to indicate who still wielded the power in the Maxim family. Although Hiram's double-breasted suit and gold pocket watch, the chain of which is barely visible on his chest, puts him in a different class than his Maine relations, his top hat lies upside-down in the grass in front of him, a crease on his forehead still marking where the hat normally rested. Perhaps even the man who invented one of the most fearsome machines in history knew to remove his hat when his mother told him to.
- By: Joshua F. Moore