Saturday, September 12, 2015
Exceptional American of the day: Richard Jordan Gatling
He would have been known for perfecting a practical screw propeller for steamboats, but his father would not allow Richard Jordan Gatling to go to Washington to file his patent claim. Months later, his father relented, but he arrived to learn that John Ericsson had just received his patent for the same thing. Ericsson real acclaim came later for designing the ironclad USS Monitor.
Gatling's acclaim came for a gun that won the West. He was a man of contradictions, a physician who never practiced medicine, a pacifist who built the deadliest weapon of his time, and a Southerner who sympathized with the South, but sold to the Union army.
Born on September 12, 1818, on his father's plantation in Hertford County, North Carolina, Gatling was a member of a family of inventors. His father, Jordan Gatling, patented machines for planting and for thinning cotton in 1835. Brother James Henry patented machines for chopping cotton stalks and for converting pine into lightwood; in the 1870s, he experimented in heavier-than-air flight, without success.
This may explain why despite a limited formal education, Richard Jordan Gatling became a schoolmaster while in his teens. School did not suit him. He tried running a store, and that didn't suit him. Observing a steamboat exhibition, he came up with his idea of a propeller screw. Although he was beaten to the patent, there would be other inventions for him. Three years later, he patented a rice planter, followed by a wheat planter. He soon amassed a fortune as he had moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to be in the Midwest market.
But he contracted smallpox while on a riverboat. Unable to get medical attention for two weeks due to a shortage of doctors, he nearly died. He decided to attend medical school, graduating in 1850 from Ohio Medical College. However, he never became a physician. Instead, he continued to invent and sell products, including a steam plow -- tractor.
He moved to Indianapolis and invented a hemp breaking machine. With the fortune he earned from his inventions, he decided to marry Jemima Sanders, who was socially prominent and 19 years his junior.
As the Civil War neared, Gatling was as conflicted as anyone in the nation. He understood the South's addiction to slavery -- a poisonous form of feudalism that is the opposite of capitalism -- but he also understood the need to remain united. War was imminent. Gatling decided to come up with a weapon so deadly no one would risk war.
"It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine - a gun - which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished," Gatling later said.
But the Gatling gun with its ability to fire hundreds of rounds in a minute encouraged war. Americans would use it in the Indian wars, and later the Spanish-American War. The British, French, and other European powers would use it to colonize Africa and parts of Asia.
His efforts in producing the gun ran in to problems. His factory burned down after producing the first six guns. He subcontracted with a factory in Cincinnati to make them. Officials in the Union Army were suspicious of his sympathies due to his North Carolina roots. But commanders bought them through their private funds. Three Gatling guns guarded the New York Times building during the bloody draft riots of 1863. General Benjamin Butler bought 12 and used them in the siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
After the war, the Army adopted the Gatling and used it for 45 years before replacing it with the M1895 Colt-Browning "potato digger" machine gun.
Gatling had other interests. His post-war patents included improvements upon toilets, bicycles, the steam-cleaning of raw wool, and pneumatic power. He moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1870 after merging his company with Colt. He died in New York City on February 26, 1903. Perhaps, if not for the Civil War, he would he known as an inventor of agricultural implements, and not a deadly weapon.
I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1. Here are the links to both "Exceptional Americans 1" and "Exceptional Americans 2."