The Mystery of the Machine-Gun Doppelgangers

Did the British inventor of the machine gun reinvent himself as a different, American inventor of the machine gun?
The Mystery of the Machine-Gun Doppelgangers

Machine guns changed war forever. Gone were the days of infantry and cavalry, as technology meant one person, sufficiently armed, could butcher hundreds of enemies. The world still doesn’t know quite what to do with them.

But in the very earliest of days, the creation of the first proper machine gun came with a mystery: Was its inventor who he claimed to be, or an entirely different man with the same face?

William Cantelo was born on the Isle of Wight, just off England’s south coast, in 1830. He became both an engineer and a pub landlord, tinkering on projects for hours in his workshop built in a tunnel beneath the Old Tower Inn in Southampton. Cantelo and his sons would vanish into there, telling nobody what they were up to, while neighbors began hearing increasingly loud, fast, subterranean bangs.

Cantelo had built a machine gun. The grey-haired, big-bearded barman had done it. Unlike the famous Gatling gun, which was hand-powered by turning a crank, his model used the energy from one shot’s recoil to load the next one, meaning it could keep firing until it ran out of bullets. 

Right after he had finished his prototype, Cantelo withdrew a lot of money out of the bank and took off. It may have been to find a buyer, it may have been to take a holiday — sources differ, but he seems to have had the gun with him. Either way, he was never seen again. His sons hired a private investigator to track him down, who figured out Cantelo had headed for America, but that was it.

Or was it?

In 1881, around the same time as Cantelo vanished, an American named Hiram Maxim arrived in London. He was grey-haired and big-bearded, and in 1884, he unveiled his invention: the Maxim gun.

The Maxim gun used the recoil from a shot to reload itself, and could keep firing until it ran out of bullets. Maxim demonstrated it for Queen Victoria, gunning her initials — VR — into a target. It was swiftly used by colonial British forces in Africa, allowing small numbers of troops to beat enormous groups of native fighters — an eyewitness to the First Matabele War, in which 750 British soldiers with five Maxim guns killed thousands of members of the Ndebele Kingdom, described the effect of the weapon as “mowing them down, literally like grass.” 

The 19th century ended with the world in a very different way to how it began — by the time World War I broke out, all of Africa other than Ethiopia and Liberia was under some form of colonial rule, a situation in large part due to invading forces armed with Maxim guns. When World War I did start, machine guns were everywhere — it was even occasionally referred to as “the machine gun war.” On one day alone, July 1, 1916, 21,000 British soldiers died at the Somme, mowed down by Germans with machine guns.

Now, was Hiram Maxim really William Cantelo? Cantelo’s sons, after reading about Maxim in a newspaper, became convinced it was their father using a new name. The new name even had the ring of familiarity about it — Cantelo had carried around a book of maxims (as in the wise sayings, not a binder of glossy magazines) at all times. They tried to apprehend Maxim at a railway station, yelling, “Father!” at him. He turned to them and said, “Well, boys, what can I do for you?”, and then leapt onto a departing train.

You can imagine how pissed off the sons must have been: to have collaborated on a project that solved a problem nobody else had managed to solve, only to have your collaborator — and not just a collaborator, your dad — fuck off and make a fortune (and eventually a knighthood), changing the world horrendously under an assumed name. Maxim even complained enigmatically in his autobiography of having “a double,” something that could be read as a veiled reference to his double life.

Except Hiram Maxim had a well-documented life before turning up in London. He had a series of inventions to his name including an inhaler, a curling iron and an early form of automatic fire sprinkler. He was also involved in a well-documented feud with none other than Thomas Edison, claiming to be the real inventor of the light bulb. Two events in his autobiography seem to feed into a recoil-based reloading mechanism — he was floored by a gun’s recoil as a child, and later invented a mousetrap that was reset by the dying struggles of a mouse ensnared in it.

Ridiculously, two men with extraordinarily similar faces invented almost exactly the same thing at almost exactly the same time, and one of their names sounded like an in-joke. What are the odds? The reality of the situation somehow makes even less sense than the outlandish, soap-opera-esque, faked-death, new-name one. 

In an additional twist, it turned out Maxim had visited Southampton around about the time Cantelo was working on his gun, meeting with various engineers. One of them had mentioned him in a letter, saying he had “a reputation for brain-sucking” — i.e., plagiarism. Did Maxim pick up on and/or rip off Cantelo’s work? His feud with Edison had at least a slight whiff of bullshit to it — he claimed that Edison only got the credit due to being better clued in on patent law — but he was clearly a very gifted engineer. He also patented gas- and blowback-based reloading mechanisms for machine guns, both of which remain in use today, so he knew what he was doing. And a lot of people were trying to build machine guns. 

As for the double? Rather than a sneaky little acknowledgement of a secret existence, Hiram Maxim had a very similar-looking brother named Hudson, with whom he had fallen out. So, yes, that’s a third engineer walking around at the same time with the same fucking face.

But then, this was the late 19th century. A lot of dudes looked like that. Colonel Sanders-core was the look of the day. Every man over 30 or so sported a big grey beard and looked a hundred. Still, though. Ridiculous. Three men, one face.

Maxim died in 1916, halfway through World War I, having become a British citizen and a knight of the realm. He was asked to stand for Parliament but opted not to due to his deafness — caused by firing machine guns thousands upon thousands of times — making it difficult. In 1985, the 100th anniversary of his invention, the curator of armed forces history at the Smithsonian Institution was asked by the New York Times to estimate how many people had been killed by Maxim’s invention and the subsequent weapons it led to. He concluded it was impossible to calculate, but had to be “astronomical.”

We’ll probably never know what happened to William Cantelo, but perhaps, in not having his name forever attached to one of the most lethal creations humanity has ever known, he had a lucky escape. 

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