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MUSEUM OF THE ALBEMARLE

Hertford County native invented Gatling gun

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Richard Jordan Gatling, inventor of the machine gun and numerous other devices

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By Jonathan Smith
For Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Richard Jordan Gatling, inventor of the machine gun and numerous other devices, was born in the Maney's Neck section of Hertford County on Sept. 12, 1818. His father was Jordan Gatling, a slaveholder who owned a plantation containing more than a thousand acres; his mother was Mary Barnes Gatling. Richard Jordan had three brothers, Thomas B., James Henry, and William J., and two sisters, Mary Ann and Martha.

The entire family is remembered for its exceptional intellect, producing numerous inventions. Richard Jordan Gatling had brief formal education at Buckhorn, a local common school. He then became a schoolmaster but gave up teaching to open a country store near the town of Winton.

During this time Gatling's inventive genius first found expression. Having observed an experimental steamboat trial while on a visit to Norfolk, Va., in 1841, he conceived the precept of the screw propeller as a substitute for the slow and heavy paddle-type wheels then in use. At first his father refused him permission to go to Washington, D.C., to patent the precept, but came around seven months later. When Gatling arrived in Washington, D.C., he learned that the celebrated inventor, John Ericsson, had patented the identical invention only a few days before.

Three years later Gatling obtained his first patent. It was for a rice-seed planter. He then left North Carolina and moved to St. Louis to manufacture and market his planter. There, converting his machine to a wheat-planter, he gained a mass fortune in the Midwestern wheat fields.

During the winter of 1845, Gatling contracted smallpox while on a business trip by riverboat. For two weeks, when the steamer was ice-locked, he was unable to obtain medical treatment. Upon recovering from this almost fatal illness, he decided to study medicine simply to be able to care for his family and himself.

Gatling attended both Indiana Medical College and Ohio Medical College, receiving a diploma as a physician in 1850. He then moved to Indianapolis, where he practiced medicine for a short while. Returning to his creative interests, he invented and patented a hemp-breaking machine and later invented a steam-plow.

The outbreak of the Civil War impassioned Gatling to produce the greatest invention of his career and one that revolutionized warfare. This was the machine battery gun that became worldly known as the "Gatling gun."

When Gatling invented his famed gun, he acted not as a merchant of violence but as a humanitarian who wished to reduce the number of men required to fight wars and thereby reduce the incidence of death. He believed his gun would cut down the rate of death by both illness and combat and he hoped the weapon would create terror to discourage war altogether.

The first gun was tested and patented in 1862, it had a firing capacity of more than 200 rounds a minute. After refining his gun and obtaining a new patent, the War Department officially adopted the Gatling gun. A later model was created that was capable of firing 1,200 shots a minute. Gatling eventually sold his patent rights to the Colt Fire Arms Company.

Richard Gatling died Feb. 26, 1903 in New York City at the age of 84.

Jonathan Smith is an information specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.

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