Kirkus Reviews QR Code
MR. GATLING’S TERRIBLE MARVEL by Julia Keller

MR. GATLING’S TERRIBLE MARVEL

The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It

By Julia Keller

Pub Date: June 2nd, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-670-01894-9
Publisher: Viking

Passionate biography of the inventor of the first practical machine gun.

Son of a prosperous farmer and inventor, Richard Gatling (1818–1903) designed a screw propeller to drive ships at age 17. Unfortunately, his application arrived at the Patent Office only months after John Ericsson’s similar device revolutionized ship transport. At 26, Gatling struck it rich with a seed planter that enabled farmers to sow in uniform rows instead of scattering seeds by hand; he filed nine more agricultural patents over the next two decades. The 1790 U.S. patent law was a historic achievement, points out Chicago Tribune culture critic Keller. Making it cheap and easy for Americans to profit from an invention, it became the engine of an explosion of technical advances. In 1861, Gatling used a rotary mechanical principle similar to that of his seed planter in a patent for the first useful rapid-fire “battery gun.” Despite his energetic efforts, conservative Union ordinance officials rejected it. First-time author Keller contradicts historians who claim the first Gatling was clumsy and unreliable; it worked fine from the beginning, she demonstrates. The army reversed itself in 1866, armies throughout the world quickly followed and the Gatling remained in use until the 1890s. Because this is such an interesting history, it’s regrettable that Keller is so eager to improve material that doesn’t require improvement. She adopts fashionable fictional devices such as writing in the present tense (“The wide world beckons. Gatling is leaving home, mounting his horse for the daunting and perilous 737-mile journey.”) and revealing her hero’s inner thoughts: “No, no, no. His head was too full of all the things he wanted to build.”

Overheated prose only slightly mars this colorful portrait of an underappreciated American inventor and his times.