Richard Gatling: Shooting Star

Richard Gatling and the invention of the Machine Gun.

Richard Gatling: Shooting Star

Richard Jordan Gatling.

When Richard Jordan Gatling (1818-1903) invented the machine gun in the early 1860s, he imagined his devastating new weapon would “to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently [reduce] exposure to battle….” To be sure, the Gatling gun reduced the relative lethality of war, but it also triggered an arms race that produced increasingly impersonal and deadly weapons. In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of men were literally mowed down by Gatling guns and their progeny—hardly the life-saving device its creator envisioned.

Today, most Americans are familiar with the name Gatling—or at least know “gat” as slang for firearm—yet the man behind the gun remains largely unknown. In “Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel” (Viking), author Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, seeks to raise Gatling’s historical profile, reminding us that this seemingly unappreciated self-taught engineer registered more than three-dozen patents during his lifetime, including ground-breaking inventions like a dry-cleaning machine and improved flush toilet.

Failure interviewed Keller about the Gatling biography, and asked her to explain why a man she describes as a “misunderstood genius”—a celebrity and legend in his own time—has been forgotten by history.

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