Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It

Julia Keller, Author
Julia Keller, Author . Viking $25.95 (294p) ISBN 978-0-670-01894-9
Reviewed on: 03/03/2008
Release date: 06/01/2008
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Keller, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, analyzes the nexus between invention and culture in this incisive and instructive cultural history cum biography. Her subject is the iconic Gatling gun, the “first successful machine gun,” and its inventor, Richard Jordan Gatling, a 19th-century tinkerer and entrepreneur. A gifted amateur inventor, he registered his first patent—for a mechanical seed planter—in 1844 and had 43 lifetime patents. In 1862, with the Civil War raging, Gatling invented a six-barrel, rapid-firing (200 rounds per minute) gun based on his seed planter. Initially rejected by the Union army, the gun finally came into use in 1866 as a “bully and enforcer” against striking workers and in the Indian Wars; its legacy—“the mechanization of death”—didn't become fully apparent until the killing fields of WWI. A celebrity in the 19th century, Gatling was soon reviled for his “terrible marvel” and then consigned to obscurity. Keller rescues Gatling and anchors his remarkable life firmly in the landscape of 19th-century America: a time and place of “egalitarian hope and infinite possibility.” (June)

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