In "Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel," Julia Keller, the Tribune's cultural critic, provides a lively and well-informed biographical study of Richard Jordan Gatling (1818-1903), inventor of the prototypical machine gun that made his name far more familiar than himself. Given that his life is, as the author insists, a highly representative American story of ingenuity, practicality, self-education, idealism and second chances for success, it seems surprising that this is the first full-dress account of his career. Previously we had only a richly illustrated 1965 work, "The Gatling Gun," which is quite different and culturally less engaging: It highlights military uses.
Keller's great gift, along with the sprightly prose that won her a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, is contextualization. For example, we learn a great deal about the highly significant history of patents in the U.S., provided for by the Constitution in 1787—the first nation to do so in a manner that basically still endures. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln held a patent for a device to help river boats get across sandbars? On a few occasions, Keller is almost carried away by her penchant for context. Gatling took courses at two medical schools from 1848 to 1850, so we get an eight-page riff on the state of medical training in America at mid-century, including marginal information about frauds and misinformation concerning phony patent medicines.
Because the enterprising Gatling grew up on a farm in North Carolina; made his way to St. Louis at 17 to seek his fortune; settled in Indianapolis, where he invented his famous gun in 1861-62; moved to Hartford, Ct., in 1870, when he sold his patent to the Colt firearms manufacturing establishment; and went to New York City in 1897, when his fame and fortune had dimmed, Keller emphasizes the paradigmatic nature of her 19th Century story: a mobile Southerner relocates to the Midwest and then to New England at the pinnacle of his career.
Gatling emerges as a decent man who began by inventing all sorts of devices for agricultural improvement; is prompted by the advent of a terrible war to design a weapon so intimidating that it might shorten conflicts and reduce the size of armies; and late in life, his mind still buzzing with creativity, patents a bicycle, a device to control wagon reins and, just two years before he dies, a patent for a new kind of flush toilet (1901).
Keller's account takes us from the rural and agrarian life of antebellum America to the industrialized nation that emerged during the last three decades of the 19th Century. Gatling played a meaningful part in that transformation, and Keller persuasively maximizes for us his role as a pivotal figure in the great shift. In terms of sheer ingenuity and entrepreneurial push, he nearly ranks with the likes of Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others whose names come promptly to mind as creative sparks who changed the way we live—and in Gatling's case, how many would ultimately die as well.
The other recurrent motif of this book is that Gatling was a more complex man than the stereotypes that survive in vignettes and caricatures. As Keller keeps reminding us, "in the kind of unintentional irony that also seems deeply American, the man responsible for the Gatling gun intended it to be a tool of peace. Its brutal spit-spot efficiency would, he hoped, persuade nations of the waste and folly of war." In a related irony, although the gun was fully tested and ready by 1863, the Union Army would not buy it because the man in charge of ordnance was deeply conservative and did not believe in trying new weapons in the midst of war, despite Lincoln's fascination with innovations in firearms and new armaments of all sorts. So Gatling sold just a few of his guns to generals acting on their own initiative during the Civil War. The Army did not adopt the weapon until 1866, when new officers took charge.
Its most memorable use during the war occurred in July 1863, when the police in New York City needed some means of intense intimidation to put down the bloody draft riots caused by working men who resented others with $300 who could buy their way out of the new draft. In succeeding decades, however, the portability, firepower and speed of this lethal weapon resulted in its being widely relied upon in ways that would make it famous and infamous. Infamous because it was used to wipe out large numbers of American Indians to make the trans- Mississippi West "safe" for white settlers. It was also used to intimidate strikers during the various episodes of serious labor unrest as the pace of industrialization intensified. During Chicago's deadly Pullman strike of 1894, the editors of The New York Times referred to a court injunction severely limiting strikers' rights as " 'a Gatling gun on paper.' "
The weapon was also displayed to great acclaim at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, when Gatling reached the apogee of his fame and success. As Keller notes, in the later 19th Century, the gun appeared in poems, novels, paintings and newspaper columns, and "made constant cameo appearances in anecdotes and tall tales." During that period and into the early 20th Century, it was bought by dozens of foreign governments but was used most viciously by the major colonial powers to suppress dissident native peoples who resented their determined oppressors but had no match for the firepower of Gatling guns.
The weapon played a crucial role in Theodore Roosevelt's successfully spectacular surge on San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Roosevelt raved about the marvels of Gatling's constantly modified and updated invention in his classic account, "The Rough Riders" (1899), which swiftly went through 15 editions. By that time Gatling had long since become a widely recognized figure in American public life because of feature stories that appeared about him and his many inventions, as early as 1867 in Scientific American and in Potter's American Monthly in 1879. By then, Keller notes, the Gatling gun was regarded as "a laudable American accomplishment, another example of native ingenuity and craftsmanship and problem-solving acumen: America at its muscular, can-do best."
Keller wears her learning lightly, and she even inadvertently sheds light on a great bequest that baffled historians for generations. When James Smithson died in 1829, his will left more than $500,000 to the U.S. "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Just what he had in mind by those words long seemed enigmatic and unclear: A research facility? A museum? A massive library?
Keller points out that in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries there was a "now-vanished world in which a grand sweep of knowledge [was still] acceptable, before narrow specialization [became] the norm. . . . Moving restlessly in the very air of the nineteenth century is the sense that the world is discoverable, that its phenomena can be measured and understood, that men—and it is mostly men at this point—have a responsibility to unmask its secrets, to harness its great power, to profit from its marvels."
Precisely, and James Smithson was a product of that Anglo-American mind-set. So was Richard Jordan Gatling. Step right up and read all about it.
Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented ItBy Julia KellerViking, 294 pages, $25.95
Julia Keller will be at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Book Fair, June 7 and 8. www.printersrowbookfair.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun