MAXIM, Sir Hiram Stevens 1840-1916. Inventor. ‘A chronic inventor’ (his own description), Maxim was born in Maine, USA. His basic engineering experience came from working in his uncle’s factory manufacturing gas engines. By his mid-30s he was senior partner of a New York firm producing gas and steam engines. His inventive mind focused on any problem that came his way: after a warehouse fire he invented a sprinkler system which also alerted the fire brigade.

Maxim came to London to reorganise his company’s office. His best-known invention, first patented in 1883, is the Maxim machine gun, a self-loading gun which fired continuously. From the 1890s he developed an interest in aeroplanes, and some maintain that he was the first to achieve flight at Bexley on 31 July 1894. The aeroplane was steam driven and enormous, with a wingspan of 104 feet and two rear 18 feet propellers. With Maxim and two assistants on board, the aircraft lifted for a short distance from the track before crashing.

Maxim has been criticized for being too confident in his own approach to developments and ignoring the research of others. He subsequently took out a patent on a design for a helicopter and invented an inhaler for relief from bronchitis (from which he suffered). To raise finance, he developed a ‘captive flying machine’, an enormous merry-go-round which swung passengers around on the end of 60 feet radial arms. His first experiments were in his garden at 377 Norwood Road, (close to Lancaster Avenue), and the most famous example was erected in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, where it remained in a dilapidated condition until after World War Two.

He became a naturalised British citizen and was knighted in 1901. The family moved in 1910 to Ryecotes, a mansion on Dulwich Common, which later became the temporary clubhouse of the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club and is now the site of Ryecotes Mead. He subsequently moved to 382 Streatham High Road. His tomb, and that of his wife and grandson, is close to the entrance in West Norwood Cemetery.

Patrick Spencer