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Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun…

Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and…

by Julia Keller

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A social history of the Gatling gun. Author Julia Keller draws heavily on (and praises) John Ellis’s The Social History of the Machine Gun, but doesn’t get it quite right. Sloppy editing is one problem; the chapters seem disconnected, as if they were originally written as magazine stories and pieced together – there are frequent repetitions. For example – in one chapter, discussing the New York City draft riots of 1863: “Informed of the crowd’s approach, New York Times editor Henry Jarvis Raymond] Raymond set up Gatling guns – two at the north windows, one on the roof”. One chapter later: “It had begun on the streets of New York during the draft riots of 1863, when New York Times editors reportedly pointed Gatling guns at the marchers…. Keller also seems handicapped by an imperfect understanding of technology – she describes the Bessemer process as a way of “oxidizing steel”. Finally, she makes a classic mistake involving projecting attitudes backwards in time – the failure of the Army to adopt the Gatling gun (initially) is blamed on hidebound bureaucrats rather than the real problem – tactics were not available to use the new technology. The original Gatling guns looked, and were used like, artillery pieces – and that is the way Gatling saw them. The modern idea of machine gun use is an infantry weapon able to cover any spot in the area in front of the gunner. The original Gatling guns were on field artillery mountings and could only be traversed by moving the entire carriage. Later, Gatling developed an oscillator that would sweep the gun back and forth as the operator turned the crank – but still within the limited traverse available on the carriage mounting; and eventually there was a “police” or “bulldog” Gatling on a tripod mount, with a traverse handle, but the original weapon was intended to fire at a fixed location – taking the place of a muzzle loading cannon loaded with grape or shell. The modern concept of a heavy machinegun – an infantry weapon – just didn’t exist yet. To be fair, the Gatling’s replacement, the Maxim gun, had the same problem at first – when it was demonstrated to prospective military purchasers they didn’t see much use for a weapon that in one minute could put 600 bullets through a man-sized target 1000 yards away.

However, When Keller gets out of technology and military tactics and more into the social history of Gatling’s time, she’s quite readable. Gatling is portrayed as one of the legion of amateur American inventors of the19th century – according to Keller, there were more patents per capita issued to American inventors in the 1860s than anywhere at any time before or since (the fact that most other countries didn’t have a patent system yet probably helped). She also risks political incorrectness by criticizing depictions of Abraham Lincoln as a sort of early gun control advocate, citing and refuting sources that claim that Lincoln was unfamiliar with firearms and never hunted. In fact, according to Keller there was a whole room in the White House full of sample guns submitted by hopeful inventors, and in at least one case an inventor showed up at the White House with a new rifle design and was immediately shown into Lincoln’s office (try showing up at the White House with a rifle nowadays and see what happens). Pleasant digressions like this include descriptions of the development of steamboat travel, the city of New Haven, Indiana politics, and 19th century medicine (Gatling spent a couple of years at medical school and usually appended “MD” to his name, although he never graduated).

So, not bad – just not as good as it might have been. There are fairly extensive endnotes, but they are referenced only by page number rather than numerals in the text, which means if you want to look up a source for one of Keller’s claims you have to thumb through the back of the book. Illustrations are mostly photographs of Gatling and his family. The bibliography is almost all secondary sources.
( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
Did not finish - made it most of the way through but had to "return" the electronic resource. Moved a little slowly for me and I wasn't particularly interested in some of the tangents the book explored. I probably won't return to it.
  KylaS | Feb 18, 2016 |
What I find most interesting is the vehement dislike that this book, which uses the life and times of Richard Gatling as a prism to comment on the transformations the 19th century wrought on American society, seems to inspire in some people. While I appreciate that the author is essentially writing a popular treatment of what contemporary social and technological history tells us about the evolution of America, there seems to be a certain class of reader who wanted a narrow technical and deployment history of Mr. Gatling's invention, and nothing else, and are highly annoyed that they didn't get it.

As for my own issues with the book I would note that while Keller's prose does have snap and crackle, I'm not sure that narrative history is her thing; if you're known as a feature writer you might be better off writing thematic sections. Particularly that even at less than three-hundred pages this book still feels a little padded. ( )
  Shrike58 | Oct 21, 2014 |
I picked "Mr Gatling's terrible marvel" up, thinking we would get a good overview of the life of Mr Gatling and his invention. We certainly heard about the Gatling Gun and the world of the nineteenth century, but it seems Keller found information on Mr Gatling hard to come by and dealt with it by going off on huge tangents.

Another reviewer suggests that Keller thought very highly of herself and her writing ability to actually write about the topic at hand. I would have to agree and to be honest if I wasn't in remote Indonesia with no other English language books at hand, I probably wouldn't have bothered finishing "Mr Gatling's terrible marvel". I was, however, in remote Indonesia (locked inside a toilet cubicle for part of it) and forced to finish it. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Oct 5, 2014 |
This book is about Richard Jordan Gatling and the machine gun he invented at the time of the Civil War. There was much resistance to adoption of the gun and it saw little use during the Civil War.

A major sub-topic of the book is the world-wide Industrial Revolution of the Nineteenth century. I found this part of the book equally fascinating.

I thought the book was poorly organized. Often I noticed that the author seemed to be repeating herself using slightly different words. From time to time I thought she must have written the paragraphs on 3x5 cards, sorted them and sent them off to the publisher.

If you are interested in arms development or the start of the military / industrial complex in Nineteenth century America I'd recommend the book. ( )
1 vote MrDickie | May 9, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670018945, Hardcover)

A provocative look at the life and times of the man who created the original weapon of mass destruction

Drawing on her investigative and literary talents, Julia Keller offers a riveting account of the invention of the world's first working machine gun. Through her portrait of its misunderstood creator, Richard Jordan Gatling-who naively hoped that the overwhelming effectiveness of a multiple-firing weapon would save lives by decreasing the size of armies and reducing the number of soldiers needed to fight-Keller draws profound parallels to the scientists who would unleash America's atomic arsenal half a century later. The Gatling gun, in its combination of ingenuity, idealism, and destructive power, perfectly exemplifies the paradox of America's rise in the nineteenth century to a world superpower.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:26 -0400)

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Although little used during the American Civil War--the time in which it was invented--the Gatling gun soon changed the nature of warfare and the course of history. Discharging 200 shots per minute with alarming accuracy, the world's first machine gun became vitally important to protecting and expanding America's overseas interests. Its inventor, Richard Gatling, was famous in his own time for creating and improving many industrial designs, from bicycles and steamship propellers to flush toilets. Gatling actually proposed his gun as a way of saving lives, thinking it would decrease the size of armies. Cultural critic Julia Keller's account of the invention, its misunderstood creator, and its tremendous impact on world events also shows how its combination of ingenuity, idealism, and destructive power, perfectly exemplified the paradox of America's rise as a world superpower.--From publisher description.… (more)

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