New Book: Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel

This is library conference season, so I’ve been racking up frequently flyer miles by the thousands. Air travel isn’t as fun for me as it was pre 9/11, but spending hours in the air does give me an opportunity to catch up on my reading. On my most recent flight I finished Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun that Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius who Invented It by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Julia Keller. The book is a biography of Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling and his most famous invention, the Gatling Gun, the first practical machine gun. (See the Economist review, “A Little Gatling Music.”)

Strangely enough, Gatling claimed to have invented his machine gun in order to mitigate the pain and suffering caused by war. His reasoning, so he claimed, was that a rapid-firing weapon would require much fewer soldiers, thus reducing the size of armies and the number of battlefield casualties. Keller does a good job of capturing the essence of life in 19th century America, with all its energy, contradictions, noise and (even) odors. Central to her story is the idea that the U.S. patent system made it possible for amateurs like Gatling to drive economic development and social change farther and faster than ever before.

The book contains several factual errors and omissions. For example, Keller states that Samuel Hopkins, the first American inventor to be granted a patent under the new federal patent law in 1790, was from Pittsfield, Vermont. In fact, Hopkins was born in Maryland to Quaker parents and was a resident of Philadelphia for most of his life. (Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office, March 1998) And Although Keller mentions Gatling’s many other patented inventions (his first successful invention was a seed planter patented in 1844), she provides the patent numbers for only a few: Nos. 3,581, 36,836 and 47,631). According to a Wikipedia article, Gatling’s lifetime total was nearly 50 patents. It’s interesting to note that searching Gatling’s name in Google Patents retrieves only 12 patents.

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