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  Richard Jordan GatlingRichard Jordan Gatling

inventor of the machine gun

Richard Jordan Gatling was born in Hertford County, North Carolina, on September 12, 1818. As a teenager, he helped his father invent two machines -- one for sowing cotton, and another for thinning young cotton plants. In 1839, he invented a steamboat propellor, but he was a few months too late as someone else had already received a patent for a similar device. That same year he perfected a seed-sowing rice planter, which he later adapted to wheat seed, which used less seed and increased yield from the hand sowing method in use at the time, and which made him a wealthy man.

In the 1840's, an outbreak of smallpox got him interested in medicine, so he entered Ohio Medical College. He graduated in 1850, but soon lost interest in medicine and never established a practice.

An inventor at heart, Gatling spent the next few years inventing and improving upon previous inventions. He invented a steam-driven plow in 1857, but it was not well received. After the outbreak of the Civil War, he turned his attention to the invention of firearms.

the Gatling GunGatling thought the invention of an automatic gun that could deliver a high rate of fire would reduce the number of soldiers required to man the battlefield, thus helping to reduce the number of battlefield casualties. On November 4, 1862, he patented the Gatling Gun. The gun had six barrels that revolved around a central shaft. When a barrel reached the top of its rotation a bullet was dropped into it; when it reached the bottom the bullet was fired. It originally used the expensive .58 caliber paper cartridges, but by 1865 he had changed the gun so that it fired a unitary, metal cartridge. The Union Army eventually bought 100 of the guns but they were only used in limited engagements. The Gatling Gun went through many changes over the years, including the number of barrels, size of bullets fired, type of magazines used, etc. Some guns were built smaller, some were mounted on carriages, and still others were built to allow for side-to-side movement. In later years Gatling added an electric motor to some models, allowing them to achieve a rate of fire exceeding 3,000 rounds per minute -- compared to the original gun's rate of 200 rounds per minute. It was declared obsolete by the U.S. Army in 1911.

In 1870, Gatling moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, where the Gatling Gun was manufactured at the Colt Armory. The partnership between Colt and the Gatling Gun Company grew closer, and by 1897 the two companies essentially merged. Within a few years the Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company completely absorbed the Gatling Gun Company. Gatling lived in Hartford until 1897, when he and his wife moved to New York City to be near their daughter and her husband.

Richard Gatling pursued and promoted many other inventions until his death in New York City, on February 26, 1903. His inventions, especially the seed drill and Gatling Gun, made him a fortune, but he lost a great deal of it through unwise investments in railroads, real estate, and in promotion of his less successful inventions. In 1943, the U.S. Navy named a new destroyer the USS Gatling in his honor.

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This page was last updated on 10/25/2014.

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