If, on a bright day in 1880, you were sat in the Old Tower Inn, drinking a pint of Bass and browsing the Hampshire Advertiser, you’d probably read about the British Army’s exploits in the First Boer War, or maybe the movement of the British Navy’s warships, like the 664-ton Vulture, a double-screw gunvessel commanded by the illustrious J E Pringle, and currently at anchor in Muscat, Oman.
Your peaceful reverie might be disturbed by the rough conversation of Southampton's stevedores, or some excited chatter about the new local football team, Deanery FC, or those strange explosions from underneath your feet, which shake the table and spill your warm beer.
Explosions, rumblings, shaking and tremors. The work of William Cantelo, who was busy inventing the machine gun in the tunnel below the Inn.
Now, if you were sat sixteen-hundred kilometers away in the Café Katzmayr, two years later in 1882, sipping a glass of Mohrenbräu and browsing the Neue Wiener Tagblatt, you might read about the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or whether the stability Count Gyula Andrássy had secured by allying with Germany still holds, or how Willhelm Steinitz and Szymon Winawer have shared first place in the second international Vienna Chess Tournament.
Here your peace could be interrupted by animated discussion about why the old cafe building was demolished, or if and when an Austrian football team will ever be created, or by the loud baritone of an inventor, regaling his American companion with the astonishing progress he’s making in his chosen career.
Accuracy, force, efficiency and rapidity. This is the work of Hiram Maxim, who was busy inventing the machine gun in his adopted London.
Cantelo had been at this for some time, creating, refining, testing, and repeating. As landlord of the Inn, he had quietly transformed the old underground space beneath the building into a workshop, where he tinkered day and night to perfect his gun. He was now forty-one years of age, and getting ready to show the world what he’d achieved.
Maxim, it seems, had been busy in exactly the same way. He’d arrived from the US to live and work in England a year before, and had dedicated himself to perfecting his own machine gun. He was of similar age, forty-two, and was also eager to show the world what he’d accomplished in this field.
As Cantelo worked underground in his workshop, he’d thought, one hopes, of his wife and three children. But he may also have had a plan in place which he was keeping secret from everyone.
That plan may have come to fruition in 1880.
As Maxim chatted in the cafe, he may have missed his wife too, who happened to be English, and their three children. It’s possible he’d also thought of Helen Leighton, who he’d bigamously married in 1878, and of Sarah Haynes who he’d also joined in matrimony in 1881. Alternatively, as he was so often traveling in Europe, he may have thought of none of them, just hoped the pastries were fresh and that he could think of a way to relieve himself of the burden of three wives.
His own plan may have come to fruition in 1882.
Imagine that day in 1880, when Cantelo finished his morning’s work in the tunnel, popped upstairs to check the bar staff had everything they needed for the afternoon, and prepared for a business trip to discuss and present his machine gun designs to would-be purchasers. He polished his shoes, loaded his bag full of the latest blueprints and details of his success, and hailed a carriage. He kissed his wife goodbye, and trundled off to meet his first potential buyer.
Cantelo was never seen again.
Two years later in 1882, if you saw Maxim sitting at the cafe in Vienna, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was Cantelo. They appeared to share the same beard, and their intense eyes were the very same almonds, topped by sloping brows. Their hair was curly and greying, and they both wore it back against imposing foreheads. And their noses, astonishingly-alike, prominent and strong, v-shaped and wider at the tip.
If Cantelo’s sons were right in their belief, Cantelo had become Maxim. Their father, they said, carried a book of maxims in his pocket at all times, and often referred to his invention as ‘the maxim gun’.
If Maxim had been living separate and complex lives on each side of the Atlantic, he seems to have chosen ‘Maxim in England’ as the winner.
If these were indeed different people, the existence of two almost identical inventors, operating on different sides of the world at the same time, is uncanny. That one disappeared in 1880, and the other appears in 1882, only deepens the mystery.
Whether Cantelo became Maxim or not, we do know that the Maxim Gun itself became the pride of British Colonial forces, helping to create an empire that changed the lives of millions of people, and causing untold despair wherever it went.
It had exactly the right MIX of AIM and HARM. Anagrammatically, Hiram Maxim.