A little Gatling music

Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel
How can you resist this cover?

Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It.
by Julia Keller

I’ve been keen to read this book for a while, as its title and day-glo cover beckoned me each time I walked by the bookstore. And then, glory, I found the hardcover for $9 on a back table at the local discount bookstore (where they were selling the trade paperback for $12 up front). The book is pretty great, but no quite as good as its cover. Keller tells two stories: the biography of Richard Gatling, the amateur inventor who patented a bunch of stuff, the most successful being the Gatling gun, and the story of America in the 19th century, its hopes and dreams, its attitudes and people. Some thoughts:

  • Keller finds lots of great nuggets and quotes in the various histories she pulls from. She tells a fantastic anecdote about a British gunsmith who used to invite visitors to demolish the 5-acre woodland around his house with his machine guns. And then there’s my favorite line from the book, in an editorial exhorting troops to treat their enemies to “a little Gatling music.”
  • Gatling invented his gun in a fit of (naive) humanism — he thought the vicious nature of the gun would reduce casualties, as troops would refuse to fight against the odds created by the gun (which, in its earliest incarnation, could shoot 200 rounds a minute). In this aspect, he was partly right: Gatlings were regularly used as threats against rioters and unarmed mobs.
  • Keller explains that Gatlings also played a strong role as the iron fist of racism and colonial practices in the last half of the 19th century. The British, particularly, saw the Gatling as a dishonorable weapon, unfit for gentlemanly war. War with savages, on the other hand….
  • There’s a fascinating chapter about the change in attitude automatic weapons demanded in world war 1. Whereas war used to be about valor and individual glory–or rather, we told ourselves it was about those things–with the invention of the Gatling, war changed. The militaries quick to realize this did much better early in the war than did those slower on the uptake.
  • Among the threads Keller weaves about the U.S. as a whole, my favorite was her paean to the patent system, designed with a low entry cost focused on giving upstart inventors the same benefits as the wealthy. She suggests that early patents made the world what it was.
  • The photos inside are excellent, especially the one of Lincoln in front of his troops.

There were a couple things about the book I didn’t like, though.

  • While Keller pulls some very entertaining chestnuts from her research, the writing itself is a bit dry for my taste. I’m not completely sure what about it didn’t work for me, except…
  • Keller repeats themes a bit too much. Sometimes, she’ll introduce an idea, spend a couple pages on it, and then use that same phrase as she moves onto her next point. It’s a small conceit, but it bugged me.

Overall, it’s a good read, especially for folks interested in the constant intertwining of technology, society, and war.