Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel

It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine — a gun — which could by rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would…supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished, wrote Richard Gatling in 1877, 15 years after patenting the first working machine gun. Gatling was often at pains to justify his creation, but as self-serving as his words sound today — inventing a machine gun to save lives? — he was likely sincere, observes Julia Keller in Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: after all, in the optimistic 19th century, the benefits of technology seemed limitless. Even so, resistance from military higher-ups delayed adoption of the gun, which Gatling, a self-taught engineer, had hoped would hasten a Union victory in the Civil War. Some simply refused to accept that machines could trump individual valor (“It does not seem like soldiers’ work,” complained an infantryman testing an early version). But attitudes shifted, and besides seeing action in the Spanish-American War, the mean-looking Gatlings were wheeled out to break labor strikes and clear the West of Native Americans before being rendered obsolete by deadlier descendants. Keller draws a line from the Gatling gun to the AK-47 and the atomic bomb, lending an uncomfortable prescience to Gatling’s words. Bloody as it was, the 20th century, she writes near the end of this lively, fascinating book, proved that “the more deadly and effective the technology used in a war, the fewer the numbers of human beings required to fight it.”