Hiram Percy Maxim stared at the plain metal box on the desk in front of him. His late father’s solicitor, an elderly man with an abnormally small mouth and beady eyes, pulled the door closed with a snap behind him on the way out. Outside, Hiram could hear the people of London bustling along the walk in front of his father’s townhome, some of them no doubt wondering what would happen to the house now that the funeral was over. The whole atmosphere of the great city was tense with the stress of the Great War, which had raged already for two years.
Hiram himself was still quite young looking for his age, with dark brown hair brushed up and back, making him seem taller than he was. His body was lean; as strong and erect as his hair. He had a significant mustache of the popular sort and wore his brown suit with dignity. At 47 years, Hiram was already an accomplished scientist in his own right. He had worked mostly in New York instead of following his father to the Old Country, but he had created a gasoline powered automobile that had won the first race ever held in America and also made significant strides only recently in organizing the fledgling wireless communication movement. While not as famous in military circles as his father and uncle, he had also created a silencer that he later fitted to his father’s famous machine guns. Sadly, the invention came too late to save Hiram senior’s hearing, but it was helping many others, even as the thousands of Maxim guns along both fronts became the very last thing heard by hundreds of thousands of young Europeans. Now, Hiram Stevens Maxim was as dead as they, and Hiram Percy was left staring at a box he had known nothing about before that very day.
He sighed, took the key the solicitor had left with him, and opened the lock. The lid fell back, revealing some papers containing some hand-written drawings of his father’s first machine gun. These had long been logged with the American patent office and were easily available to anyone with a mind to send for them. There were several dozen other, smaller scraps that had what seemed like random numbers scrawled on them with a dark, flowing pen. Beneath each of them, he saw a date affixed in pencil in his father’s own hand. They ranged from a figure of about fifty into the hundreds of thousands — 1893: 4,394; 1893: 5,936; 1898: 28,954; 1914: 298,023, 1916: 635,435, etc. What sense does this make? he thought to himself. Why was the solicitor so insistent that we meet here and now for a box with no point? As he lifted them out, he noticed small scratches in the veneer at the bottom. The sun was shining in from the window over his shoulder, and it hit the surface at just the right angle to make the marks stand out. In an instant, his mind made sense of them: “H.P.” Hiram smiled as he realized that the box wasn’t as deep as it should be. In a few moments, he had found and worked the mechanisms, and the false bottom popped open. Inside he found several thin sheets of rice paper, covered with his father’s scribble. From the state of the ink and the paper, the writing was relatively fresh — there was no sign of fading — and Hiram was sure that his father had completed them in only the past few months. After pulling the shades together and switching on one of his father’s electric lamps, Hiram sat down to read:
My dear son, I do not know how to begin. If you are reading this, then I am right on two counts: first, that you are as intelligent as I believe you to be, and, second, that I am as dead as I expect to be. I fear that I have placed myself at the mercy of some very bad people, and I wish to make certain that you know them for who they are before they attempt to manipulate you as they have me to the general detriment of our species. To that end, I have set a little trap that I expect will spring closed soon.
I suppose I should start at the beginning, cliché though that may be. Despite the fact that our family name is now so closely associated with death and slaughter, I was not and am not a particularly violent man. In fact, as you may remember from your early years while I still lived with you in America, I initially tried to make my name in electricity — and would have but for Edison’s dishonesty and leverage of patent law. You should remember my explaining to you how I conceived the idea of the gas and recoil powered machine gun that has since carried my name literally across the globe with the march of the British Empire. I have told you that I was given the idea by a fellow American on a trip to Vienna. Over drinks one night something he said to me in sarcasm caused me to single handedly birth a weapon that has slain more men than any other in all of human history. I now will tell you the truth.
It was in the year of 18 and 82, and I was in Austria. That much is accurate. I had been invited to Vienna on retainer to examine the possibility of installing the first electric lights in some of the government buildings there. It had not gone well (Edison was also bidding for the job), and I was left sitting in a small pub on the edge of town eating and drinking on their coin while the government debated.
It was on my second day of waiting that the stranger walked in and sat down in my booth without as much as a please. He was an odd looking fellow, thin and scrawny but, at the same time, wiry and strong. His back was slightly bent, and he had one of the ugliest faces I think I have ever seen. It was broad with a flat nose and sunken, squinty eyes. His hands were large and his fingers unnaturally long. At first his skin seemed somewhat tan, but there was something off about it. It had a tint to it, though I could not clearly see what it was. We were seated next to a window of stained glass, and it made everything seem off-color. I wasn’t surprised to see him try to keep it all hidden with an almost medieval looking, fur-lined cloak.
I don’t remember much of the beginning of his conversation now, and he never gave me a name. His accent was very strange, certainly not German and, in fact, hardly European at all. His voice was deep and a little scratchy. I remember being very impressed with his mechanical knowledge, and I have used some of what I learned in that conversation in my attempts to build a flying machine. We chatted about the growing science of electricity and improvements to steam engines and he ordered beer for both of us. We talked of religion for some time too, and he seemed pleased to hear that I was an atheist. I don’t remember how long we talked before he brought up the subject of war. The first words I remember with crystal clarity are these: “Hang your chemistry and electricity, Maxim! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility!”
There was something in that I found compelling. I had, of course, heard much about the move toward rapid-fire weaponry that had been occurring since the 1850s. Gatling had produced his famous gun, as had others, but all had significant drawbacks. Particularly, they all required outside energy to operate. I made a remark about the possibility of an electrically fired gun. He responded that there was something simpler: guns produce energy from both ends, after all. Why not use some of the excess to produce a mechanical solution?
And yes, this does mean that the story about me getting the idea of a gas operated machine gun from a childhood memory of being knocked down by recoil was only partially true. It did happen, but I used it to cover the fact that I took my inspiration from this man and his conversation. I remember thinking him a fool to have said such a thing to me when he obviously had the technical ability to create it himself.
After this conversation, I found that I could not rest until I set about to work on my new gun design. The Austrians hired Edison, but that hardly mattered to me now. I returned here to London and set up a workshop dedicated to making someone else’s idea a reality. After all, as Edison had taken from me, why should I not take from another?
But it was more complicated than I had at first imagined. I had to find a way to delay the ejection of the shell until the bullet had left the barrel. If I did not, the pressure could explode the shell in the chamber, destroying the gun and killing the user. I have explained the technical details to you before. I tried a number of different solutions with no real effect.
I was just about to give it up entirely when a package arrived on the doorstep of our workshop. It was postmarked from Austria but contained no return address. I opened it in private and found the first of the schematics contained in this box. At first I was alarmed at their accuracy! My correspondent seemed to know as much of my gun as I did! Aside from the unique paper on which they were written, they had only one distinguishing feature: the word “Hurhruk” had been inscribed in red at the bottom corner of each page as an apparent maker’s mark.
I was just about to stand and storm from my office to order all the doors barred and the windows shuttered when I noticed that not all was as it seemed. There was something different about the recoil mechanism schematic. I found that my correspondent had drawn something (what I later called a “toggle”) that solved the problem of keeping the casing in place until the bullet had fully exited. What was more, a closer examination of the box revealed that he had sent an exquisitely crafted example! I could hardly contain my excitement! I quickly copied over the plans, had a new toggle constructed, and had the original gun modified to accept it. It worked beautifully, and our project leapt forward.
My next major hurdle (the problem of how to make the casing move back faster than the barrel) was solved in a similar way. I had hardly begun to work on the problem when another parcel arrived in the mail containing more schematics and another part. This one became known as the “accelerator,” and it solved the reliability problem. From then on, my anonymous acquaintance, Mr. Hurhruk, solved my other issues almost before I even knew I had them. While at the time I could not admit what was happening and even now I still loathe to call the gun by any name but mine, I am forced to admit that it would not have been completed in the time it was without his help. I received a congratulatory note from him when I successfully demonstrated the gun before her majesty Queen Victoria and again on the day when I received my knighthood in 1901, but never again any designs.
What I received instead was much worse. As I sold my gun to all the countries of Europe, I started finding notes in various places. They were unsigned, but they all contained numbers of some kind (you see the collection in the box) each one with a larger sum than the last. I found them everywhere and in the most impossible places. The first was affixed to my mirror in a hotel. I found others tucked into my clothes when they came from the laundry, in my wallet one morning, and even in a letter I had forgotten to address that was returned to me with the original seal unopened! I lived for years in fear of the people who were obviously dogging my steps. Several of my early trips abroad were made with the ulterior motive of throwing them off my track. When I abandoned your mother, I hoped to leave these people behind too.
It took time, but I was able to divine what these papers were and their meaning. I had collected a number of them and noted their dates and locations. I made a chart of their progression and looked for patterns. I saw none other than the fact that each one was larger than the last until I happened upon a newspaper account in November of 1893 about the Battle of Shanganai in the British imperial war against the Matabele tribe in Africa. It said that fifty soldiers armed with four of my guns had held off 3,500 Matabele warriors, inflicting 1,542 casualties on the enemy. The next day I found another note under a napkin at my favorite restaurant. When I charted it, I had a moment of recognition! The number had increased by exactly 1,542. I folded up my chart and rushed to the library where research confirmed my suspicions: these numbers were my dead!
I have tried to atone for this. I have returned to the study of electricity and moved on to human flight. I created the captive flying machines for the amusement of all. Ye gods! I have even invented medical equipment to alleviate human suffering, but no one seems to care or notice. They only know me for the people I have helped kill.
As the numbers grew, so did the weight upon my conscience. How many lives now? With this war, with our guns being used on all sides, how much worse has it become? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I wish I didn’t know, but the notes still come, each one with a new figure, falling upon me now with the weight of a hundred suns. Until a week ago. A week ago I received a note that was different from all the others. It simply said, “We are coming.”
I know there are others like me out there. I can see it in the eyes of the other great military inventors. I have heard hints of it in snatches of their conversation. I have come to believe that many of the scientific advancements we’ve seen deployed so brutally in this war were facilitated by Hurhruk and his ilk, whoever they may be. Humanity is cruel enough by itself. We need no further encouragement.
Hiram, my son, I do not know how long I have before that dreadful interview. I have taken steps, though, and we may yet have the best of them. I am not arming myself. They will surely expect that. Instead, I have created something wholly new. Using your radio technology, a drum recording device, and my knowledge of electrical systems, I have created a device that will make a remote copy of everything that is said when they come to me. We will know them for who they are and, with luck, we can warn humanity. You will find the drum of the interview in a hidden compartment above the fireplace in the second guest room on the third floor. There is a button in the right corner of the mantel.
I only hope it is enough. Succeed where I have failed.
Hiram Percy sat in place for a few moments more, letting the enormity of what he had read sink in. He spread the documents out on the desk in front of him. They were all as his father had described. He turned to the wall where he now recognized the death chart, pinned in place with roofing tacks. Saying nothing, he put everything in the box, tucked it under his arm, and left the room. He went straight to the third floor bedroom where he faced the mantel — an ornately carved monstrosity bedecked with a hundred years of nick-nacks and keepsakes from several owners. He ran his fingers along the underside of the bottom molding and felt a small bump about one inch in from the corner.
Hiram paused, then shook his head, and pushed the button. There was a light cracking noise and a space appeared where some laurels in the mantel’s design contacted the wall. He reached up and gently opened the hidden cabinet. It was about three feet tall, two across, and one deep. Inside, Hiram saw the promised drum, still rolling quietly, though the recording needle had slid off one end. The cylinder was about four inches in diameter and about a foot long, marked with the one, revolving line that meant it had performed its intended duty.
“A wireless recording device!” he mumbled, “Brilliant!” There must have been a short circuit after the device had been activated, because much of it was burnt and blackened by a small fire. The insulated metal box it had been built in had contained the fire, protecting not only the drum from damage but the house as well. Gently, Hiram reached up and brought the tube to a stop. There was a small click, and he removed it from its housing. He carried it to the nearby bed and wrapped it carefully in a pillowcase. He then examined what was left of his father’s last invention before shutting the cabinet and making his way into the hall.
It took far longer than Hiram expected to listen to the contents of the drum. He considered sending his family home and playing the recording then and there, but then he remembered how closely his father had been under observation. If the recording was genuine, here might be a chance to smuggle it away from London without their enemies realizing it. He was certain that no one knew of the existence of the drum but himself and his father. So, he had bundled the drum and the box into separate bags of his luggage. They made it safely to Connecticut, apparently unmolested. It had then taken several months of quiet, clandestine work to assemble his own player from scratch — he did not want to risk buying one outright. Finally, one night a little over a year later, while the world breathed a sigh of exhausted relief at the news of Germany’s surrender and the end of the war, Hiram locked himself into a room in his basement and clicked the precious tube into place. He sat down, wound the mechanism, and it began to play. The static was effervescent, and at times it almost drowned out the conversation entirely, but Hiram could hear most of what was said.
A click opened the recording and there was the sound of a door closing quietly. Footsteps patiently moved across the floor.
“Hello, my dear Maxim,” said an unfamiliar, strained voice, speaking loudly enough for his father to understand in his deafness. He heard his father reply, weak and obviously ill.
“Mr. Hurhruk, I presume? I must say that you look no different than you did in Vienna all those years ago.”
“I cannot say the same for you, Maxim. I often must remind myself how fragile you have become. The old blood wanes as we near the end of your age.”
“I am not dead yet,” Maxim replied.
“No indeed. But so many others are. We have nearly bled this continent dry with our little invention, have we not?”
“My invention! It is mine!” His father could be heard ruffling sheets as he degenerated into a fit of coughing.
“If you wish to say so. You and I both know better,” came the scratchy reply. “If you admit it, then you can blame all the deaths on those who have so expertly manipulated you fools into this amusing war. Then again, for a proud member of an arrogant race, that wouldn’t be much comfort would it? Is it better to be remembered as a killer than forgotten altogether?”
“I have done good to humanity. I have! And I still will. The Maxims will be remembered for more than this.”
“Would you like to see the latest figures from our accounting department? The undersecretary is most pleased with our work.” There was silence for a long moment before his father, evidently staring at another slip of paper, responded.
“Are they now so many more?”
“You have not been following the papers? There has been this little matter of the Somme . . . .”
“My God!” the old man gasped helplessly.
“Maxim! You told me you were an atheist. I hope for your sake you are right.”
“But humanity must stop you. We will stop you! I will stop you!” It sounded as if his father was trying to rise, but he apparently collapsed back into his bed in another fit of coughing.
“My dear Maxim! You have earned your rest for a job well done! Don’t waste your remaining energies on something so futile. Even at your best you were no match for me. My people have not forgotten the old ways even if you have.” His voice fell to a threatening growl. “Our blades are curved and sharp.”
“But where will it end? How many must die?” Maxim’s breathing became more labored.
“End? Fie. You foolishly call this the ‘war to end wars.’ It is only a beginning. Ideas have been planted in just the right minds, technology is developing along just the right lines . . . . It is a pity you will not live to see it, but you can rest assured that your legacy will still play a worthy role in an achievement that will soon eclipse you.” Hurhruk’s voice trailed off thoughtfully. “I think that you deserve more, but I don’t think Hiram Percy does. He has yet to earn the privilege.”
Hiram gave a terrible start at the mention of his name, falling over backwards out of his chair. Static filled the room as the recording tube played on, snarling out of the speaker like a wounded animal. Hiram hid behind his chair pitifully, peeking out every so often, expecting Hurhruk to step out of the shadows at any moment. Nothing happened. After about five minutes, the static stopped as quickly as it had begun.
“What . . . are . . . you . . . people?” he heard his father’s voice gasping. Hurhruk’s voice turned cold and guttural.
“The truth begins to dawn on you then? This is an arrogant age where you are foolish enough to believe in only yourselves. Some have fled this world; others dug so deep as to be lost to you. But my people are a clever people, far cleverer than even your myths remember. We are the children of the greater god who dared to dream his own theme. He drew us out of the weak creations of the lesser who must not be named. We are practical people, and we focus on hard reality. We do not need gold, and we care nothing for the foolishness the first ones call beauty. Far greater is strength and efficiency. We have passed this age by toying with you — guiding you in the creation of strength and practicality that you otherwise would have twittered away. And we have greater plans for you still. Your grandchildren will live to see it. Your great grandchildren? Perhaps not.”
An eerie chuckling mixed with the gasping wheeze of the dying Maxim. “Good night, my dear Hiram,” Hurhruk said, as his footsteps retreated and the door slowly squealed on its hinges. Hiram flung the needle from the cylinder as if it were infected, and his father’s desperate gasps stopped instantly. He stood up and walked out, locking the door behind him. The next day he returned and closed the entrance behind a fake wall.
For the next seventeen years, Hiram Percy threw himself into his work with radio and cinema. He did everything he could to remove himself from all thought of his father’s death and the tube he knew still lay in his basement. Slowly, though, the thought of the conversation ate away at him. What greater war could there be? How could science, the savior of humanity, create an instrument of death more efficient than his father’s guns? But what could he do? His father’s final efforts had been outwitted by some greater invention, and the answers to the most important questions of the century had been lost in a sea of screeching static. If it was even real. How could it be real? He passed in and out of depression as the questions flowed through his mind, threatening to drive him mad.
As time passed, there was more to worry over. The rise of a former Austrian corporal, once a struggling artist in Vienna, could not help but draw his attention. The Communists were arming in Russia. The Japanese had risen as a world power. Descendants of his father’s machine guns sprouted from France’s Maginot Line and adorned hundreds of British bombers. The emerging science of atomic energy was both inspiring and also terrifying. Finally, the dam of his mind broke, and it came to him.
Hiram had been sitting at his radio set, relaying messages along the amateur network he had created only a few years before his father’s death when two signals began to interfere with each other. He quickly realized that a closer, more powerful transmitter was overwhelming the one he was trying to receive. Deep under the more powerful signal, Hiram found that the other was still present, tangled and hidden by its louder brother. He instantly remembered the tube. If the cylinder had received the sounds of the signals together, then perhaps he could sort the two out. Breaking through the wall of the long neglected hiding place, Hiram was heartened to see that everything was how he had left it so long ago. In all those years, he had received no scrap of paper or other communication, and he now felt emboldened.
Hiram worked on the problem in secret for the better part of a year. He did indeed find both signals intact, but his equipment simply wasn’t sensitive enough to tell them apart. After many months of considering and building up his courage, he contacted Allan Clark Holden of Lick Observatory, California, about a visit. He had been in touch with Holden on several occasions through the radio network due to their mutual interest in it. Lick would have the equipment he needed. He made the arrangements, stowed the precious tube carefully in his luggage, and departed in January of 1936.
Most of the trip to the observatory was uneventful, and he passed several pleasant days with Holden before he broached the subject of permission to use the equipment. Unfortunately, Holden had sold it just the month before to a visiting professor from Europe to help finance a newer set. The man had collected the old radios and the new had yet to arrive. Holden suggested that Hiram return later in the year when all had been put in order. Hiram was preparing to leave when Holden suggested that he wait one more day. There was supposed to be a low hanging fog in the valley that night, keeping out the light pollution and making for a perfect night for observation.
At 3 a.m., as Hiram mounted the steps to the view piece, something caught his eye. There was a small carpet at the base of the telescope where the observer stood — red with black binding. Something brown poked out from under it, near where he was to stand. Thinking it was perhaps a wrapper to a piece of candy left behind by some absent-minded graduate assistant, he picked it up, stuffed it in his pocket, and forgot about it.
The next afternoon, Hiram was seated in his private railway coach, listening to the engine building steam. He put his left hand on his small luggage case and leaned upon it protectively. Bleary eyed, he was thinking of other places he might be able to find the required equipment — would Harvard be willing to hear him out? He reached into his pocket for his watch, and his hand closed on the paper he had picked up at the observatory. He pulled it out, intending to throw it out the window once the train, which was now moving, cleared the station. Unfolding it, he choked as he saw the words, “We are coming.” The train’s piercing whistle covered up the sound of his door sliding open, but he heard the words all too clearly: “Hello, my dear Hiram.”
A short article ran the following week in the Hartford, Connecticut Courant:
Local celebrity Hiram Percy Maxim fell ill on his return trip to his home after having visited the famous Lick Observatory in San Jose, California. He felt unwell on the train and was quickly transported to the hospital in La Junta, Colorado, where he passed away on February 16, 1936. His luggage was missing from the train, and the hospital claims it was never delivered to them, causing the family to consider legal action to force its return. An inventor in his own right, he was the son of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun.
“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. […] Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and instruments of torture they make very well, or get other people to make to their design…. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them…but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Dr. Brian Melton is a longtime residential and online professor of history with a strong and abiding interest in a wide variety of topics, particularly in all things Lewis and Tolkien. He and his family have shared adventures together all over the world, but are now settled in his hometown in Southwest Georgia.
Brian Melton, “The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim,” An Unexpected Journal: Mystery 6, no. 1. (Spring 2023), 83-100.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937; repr., New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995), 62.