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Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008

Rapid Fire

Mr. Gatling’s weapon

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   When it comes to the Gatling gun, perhaps Confederate soldiers put it best: "The Yankees have a gun you load on Monday and shoot all the rest of the week." And that statement stemmed from limited observation, as the gun, despite its deadly effectiveness, was little used in the Civil War.

  The , patented in November 1862 by Richard Jordan Gatling, was "the world's first machine gun that actually worked," Julia Keller writes in Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It (Viking). Though the man behind it has become obscure, "Gatling gun" is still heard as a metaphor for swift, unchecked activity; "gat," the slightly outdated slang for a handgun, derives from it.

  In Terrible Marvel, the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Keller brings Gatling out from obscurity, explaining why and how he invented his gun. Horrified at seeing the return of wounded and dead Union soldiers to Indianapolis, where he was living at the time, Gatling resolved to perfect his idea of a rapid-fire weapon that would save lives by reducing exposure to battle and the need for large armies.

  It scarcely got a tryout in the Civil War because the Union army's chief of ordnance "was notoriously contemptuous of newfangled weapons," despite the gun's glowing reports. The first Gatling guns, manufactured in Cincinnati in November and December of 1862, fired 200 rounds per minute from six barrels. But the army did not adopt the gun until August 1866.

  Terrible Marvel combines biography with social and cultural history, with rather more of the latter than the former. Strictly speaking, a good deal of the content isn't necessary to an understanding of Gatling, his accomplishments or the times, such as a lengthy disquisition on the slow, wretched modes of transportation in mid-19th-century America, or discussions of Manifest Destiny, patent medicines, steamboats and steamboat explosions. In fact, the addition of this information borders on padding.

  There is also some sloppiness in expression. "A dark shape is rising in Richard Gatling's mind," Keller writes. "He rides out to meet it." He rides out to meet a shape in his mind? Nice trick. And then there's this dubious assertion: "Armies are run, and always have been, by romantics." Ah, yes: Genghis Khan, that Errol Flynn of the Asian steppe.

  Gatling was born in Murfreesboro, N.C., in 1818 and died in New York City in 1903. As a young man he became wealthy through patents for agricultural implements; in his lifetime he had 43 patents for items as varied as plows, bicycles, flush toilets and dry-cleaning apparatuses. Indeed, it was through observing seeds drop through his mechanical seed planter that he got the idea for a gravity-fed gun.

  The author makes a big deal of patents, and rightly so. She calls the patent system America's "soul" for its encouragement of invention, entrepreneurship and economic growth. Here, and in placing Gatling in the economic and social ethos of the times, her cultural history is relevant and well told.

  It was an America made by men who made things. In a vigorous era of restlessness and forward momentum, inventions were conceived by individuals like Gatling: dabblers, amateurs, eccentrics-and tireless self-promoters. Keller also discusses the Gatling gun's larger meaning, seeing it as part of a shift in historical perspective from the individual to the aggregate. Gatling's personal obscurity she attributes to American ambivalence over weapons and armed might.

  Gatling never stopped improving his gun, yet toward the end of his life he all but said he regretted having invented it. It cost him more than he ever made from it, he said, and it overshadowed his accomplishments in nonlethal machinery. The machine gun, originally conceived as an artillery weapon, did not come into its own until used by infantry in World War I. By that time Gatling's hopes for a "life-saving weapon" had long been dashed and his reputation as a beneficent genius turned on its head.

  Keller devotes the last section of her book to later developments of the machine gun, including those of Hiram Maxim, an American inventor who actually did follow the age-old advice by building a better mousetrap. Nevertheless, the path the world beat to his door was for his machine gun.