My appetite for biographies is minimal: in general I find focus in single individuals results in a necessarily circumscribed and correspondingly dull book, and therefore avoid them except in certain cases (Christopher Hitchens’ recent memoir, while not strictly a biography, counts among their number). Inestimably more interesting—and invariably more important as well—are general histories, either of periods or concepts.
Occasionally, however, an individual or dynasty serves as a synecdoche for said historical period or concept, and this is the approach that Julia Keller takes toward Richard Jordan Gatling, the 19th-century inventor who lent his name to the famous machine gun. In fact, Keller’s book, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel, travels along two separate threads; the first is Gatling himself and the era of innovation of which he was emblematic, but the second is the rich irony of Gatling, most proud of his agricultural machinery, becoming famous for instruments of death.
For what is ostensibly a biography of Richard Gatling (or more accurately, biography of the “Gatling Gun”), Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel doesn’t dwell overly long on Gatling himself. There is an extensive introduction which serves to offer up the two major conflicts I mentioned above, and an initial section which overviews Gatling’s early life, but Keller’s narrative quickly swerves away from Gatling and into a more broad look at the era in which he lived. The time immediately preceding the Civil War saw a sudden flood of invention, pushed in part by changes in patent law and the U.S. patent office, and the period was marked by a surge in technological innovation unmatched until the turn of the century. This was both good and bad; in addition to the invention of the steam engine and the railroad, it also was an uptick in the invention and manufacture of military ordnance, and an explosion of “patent medicines” and other such medical quackery. The time period saw the United States suddenly transform from a weak young nation still getting its bearings after a bloody war for independence into an economic powerhouse: at the Great Exhibition in London, it was largely American inventions (including those of rival gunmaker Samuel Colt) which stole the show and suddenly made the Europeans nervous.
But while the United States was finally sloughing off the memory of the Revolutionary War, it was about to become embroiled in an even bloodier internecine conflict, and the importance of guns would come to the fore. What distinguished Gatling’s machine gun from the many other attempts by lesser inventors is that Gatling’s actually worked, not least because of his attention to manufacturing quality. Ironically, Gatling’s gun was never really used in the Civil War, at least in any real sense; the battle commanders were too distrustful of new technology. But in the period after the Civil War, when the gun’s sales finally skyrocketed as governments bought them for sanguinary conflicts against “primitives” in the American west and in Africa. It’s impossible to say just how many people were killed by Gatling Guns, but the stated hope of its inventor was that the gun would be so chilling and terrible in its effect that people would avoid armed conflict altogether—a notion not unlike the one which justified work on atomic weapons1.
In this way Gatling is much like Robert Oppenheimer or Leó Szilárd, whose participation in invention was motivated by both an abstract desire for conquering scientific or engineering challenges, and partly by the somewhat naïve hope that the product would be ultimately beneficial; Kurt Vonnegut famously lampoons this naïveté in Cat’s Cradle. By the end of his life, Gatling had disassociated himself from his gun, directing his energies once again into agricultural machinery instead; but the genie was out of the bottle: mechanized warfare had become the new face of violence, a principle the world would finally see brought to its full expression in World War I—and taken to its most extreme degree at the end of World War II. Long after Gatling has died in Keller’s historical narrative, in fact, the death of War as a courageous, saber-flashing event was ongoing. There would be no more charging cavalry in the traditional sense, because horses offered no advantage against machine guns, artillery, or poison gas. Gatling’s legacy, or rather the deadly legacy of technological progress with which his name has become indelibly associated, is still seen today in smart bombs and tanks and mustard gas, and this knowledge would probably horrify him.
Keller’s sympathies clearly lie with Gatling; the motif throughout seems to be that of the misunderstood genius, and there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest such a depiction is accurate, but there’s also a lingering sense that Gatling was as much an opportunist as an idealist—the image of him as an unctuous businessman is hard to shake when he attempts to peddle his gun—quality though it may be—to President Lincoln. But that may simply also be a characteristic of the era and not the man…. or perhaps both.
Ultimately, Keller’s biography-cum-history is melancholic, expressing a sort of fatalism about the progress of technology and its relationship to our nature, and eulogizing a man emblematic of the inherent schism of his age. Though it wanders a bit at parts, its focus blurred by the sheer scope of the narrative, it is a fine piece of scholarship, and I think properly deserves to become one of the most well-recognized book (the only recognized book?) about Richard Gatling.