Today’s Illustration: An Invention To Save Lives — Kills


richard-jordan-gatling-1-sized.jpg  R. J. Gatling


On This Day: November 4, 1862 — Gatling gun patented by R. J. Gatling, M.D.


Gatling_gun  The Gatling Gun


What is ironic is that Richard Gatling was a peace-loving individual and had hoped that such a gun would save lives. 

As with many other weapons* which were used in warfare, it was yet another two-edged sword.  It was developed and used because it was believed to save the lives.

From Gatling to Game-changer

“The machine-gun was a game-changing weapon of mass destruction. But did this awesome threat actually save lives?

When, in 1861, Dr. Richard Gatling patented the Gatling gun – one of the first reliable hand-cranked machine-guns – his humanitarian vision was based on a desire to end wars. He believed that his invention would instantly convey to the military a reason not to go to war in the first place, or at least reduce the number of men who would be placed in harm’s way.”



“Richard Gatling had actually hoped that the tremendous power of his new weapon would discourage large scale battles and show the folly of war.”



The Gatling Gun was used in warfare and was even mounted on camels for use in desert battles.  It was used in the Civil War, the Spanish-American war, and in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in Pennsylvania!

On the death of Richard Gatling, the newspaper recorded the motivation of Richard Gatling for inventing such a weapon.  The following account indicates that his motivation was indeed the preservation of life.

Headline: “Inventor Of Fast-firing Weapon Deceased

Feb. 26, 1903 — Dr. Richard J. Gatling, inventor of the gun which revolutionized modern warfare, died yesterday in New York City at 84. As developed by Gatling early in the Civil War, the Gatling Gun fired 250 shots a minute as compared with its current 3,000 shots a minute.  But the inventor was a mild, kind man whose aim was the contrary of violence or destruction. Because the gun could be fired by one man, he hoped it would spare an entire army from indiscriminate enemy fire.  After perfecting the machine gun for 30 years, he sold his interest to Colt Firearms Company.

Nor did he invent only guns.  Born on a farm, he helped his father design a device for thinning cotton.  Later, while working as a  merchant, he designed a screw propeller and then a machine for sowing rice, at which time he shifted exclusively to inventing.”

patent gatling gun

History is filled with individuals who invented instruments of war and destruction, individuals who believed and hoped at one time that their innovation would promote peace and even perhaps end war in the world.  Usually, if not totally, the result was far different than originally believed.  The attempts at promoting peace through the invention of more and more powerful weapons have consistently disappointed all who have dreamed of something far different and better.


Facts & Information:

Richard Jordan Gatling:  Born September 12, 1818 in Hartford County, North Carolina

Family: Three brothers and two sisters

Father:  Jordan —  Farmer & Inventor — Richard assisted his father in inventing machines to sow cotton seeds and for thinning out young cotton plants.

Mother: Mary Barnes Gatling

Married: Wife- Jemima T. Sanders Gatling — two sons and two daughters

Inventions: Richard Gatling also invented the “propeller-wheel” (screw propeller for steamboats) a machine to sow rice,  to sow wheat, a marine steam ram, gunmetal alloy, and the steam plow.

Medical Doctor: On a trip from Cinnacitt to Pitsburg, he contracted smallpox (1844) which became the event which put him on the road to study medicine — initially out of just curiosity.

In 1847 Dr. Gatling enrolled at the Indiana Medical College in LaPorte, Indiana

In 1849 he entered the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati

Graduated from “Ohio Medical College” in 1850.

Gatling Gun Developed in 1861.

Gatling gun was patented in 1862.

By 1893, the Gatling gun was modified to ten barrels and able to fire 800-900 rounds a minute.

Gatling had six of these guns made by the “Miles & Greenwood Company,” at the Eagle Iron Works Factory, at a cost of $6,000 —  in 1863 .   However, before they could be demonstrated and used, a fire took out the company, along with the patterns & drawings.  The 6 guns were melted down to “brass blobs” by the fire.

Following that misfortune, Gatling employed a second firm to manufacture twelve of these guns which were then used to demonstrate their effectiveness before members of the army, Congress, and the press.  Upon demonstration, General Butler bought all 12 on the spot for $12,000 cash!

On May 9, 1865, Dr. Gatling patented a redesign of his original gun.  Successive models were named after the year they were redesigned and patented.

1866 — the army ordered 100 Gatling guns.

The manufacturing rights were later sold to “Colt” – 1870

Was the first president of the “American Association of Inventors and Manufacturers” in 1891.

“In 1911 the U. S. Military declared the Gatling Gun obsolete until it was revived in the 1950s. The Gatling Gun is the basis for a number of the US militaries most advanced weapons systems including the Vulcan, the Mini-Gun, and the Phalanx System. Proving that Dr. Gatlings system was way ahead of its time. ” — — pg 24 “The Man and The Gun,” by Richard Hoffman

The gun, though modified today (the Vulcan minigun), is still used in warfare today.  It fires approximately 6,000 rounds per minute.

“The Gatling gun’s innovation lay in the use of multiple barrels to limit overheating, a rotating mechanism, and a gravity-feed reloading system, which allowed unskilled operators to achieve a relatively high rate of fire of 200 rounds per minute.”

“Many Gatlings were melted down for scrap during the First World War. Some few that survive are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  An 1866 10-barreled .45/70 Gatling was sold at auction in November of 2007 for $155,000. At another auction in 2010, an 1876 Gatling sold for $282,000.” —

Died February 25, 1903 – cause of death – heart failure.

Book by Julia Keller: “Mr. Gatling’s Terrible MarvelThe Gun that Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius who Invented it.”

“Did Richard Jordan Gatlin know he had changed the world?  Was there a moment when it became clear to him?

Other had tried to create what he created.  They tried for centuries.  They failed.  Their inventions blew up, or were wildly inaccurate, or jammed too easily.  His, however, did the trick.  It functioned beautifully, and for the first time in history, death was automatic.  Death could be reliably doled out in sweeps and clusters, in reeling multiples, instead of one by one. . . . Death was mechanized . . . Civilization thus was irrevocably altered. . . . Could Richard Gatling, no matter what his motives were, had had any idea what he had unleashed on the world?” — Julia Keller

gatling gun 2.jpg

“In 1877 Dr. Gatling wrote a letter to Lizzie Jarvis, a niece of the late Col. Colt, and expressed his reasons for designing his gun.

“It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” — pg 3 “The Man and The Gun,” by Richard Hoffman


Key Illustrative Thoughts:

• dreams of a better day
• swords into plowshares
• plowshares into swords
• peace through strength — in a fallen world
• man’s ability to invent, create, develop, and destroy
• civilization was irrevocably changed that day
• an invention still impacts today’s world
• if not him, someone else?
• it changed the way wars are fought
• a name forever tied to a gun
• not a prophet of hope
• committed to saving lives
• looking for peace
• the elusive/illusive/allusive promise of peace
• high hopes – pie in the sky hopes
• peace, peace – but there is no peace
• like others — little did he know or understand
• Gatling & Oppenheimer – “brothers”
• Game changer
• Dr. Gatling — committed to saving lives





* Zachary Keck makes an able case that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives. He argues two main points: that Japan would not have surrendered immediately without the shock of the bomb (the Soviet declaration of war was not enough), and secondly that the limited use of nuclear weapons during World War II created a taboo that prevented a larger use during the Cold War. Both of these arguments are plausible but, I think, wrong.  This is not just a question of 70 year-old history. This goes to the heart of the debate about the utility of nuclear weapons and the rationale for keeping them. These are arguments, in other words, that matter.


“In 1864 Dr. Gatling sent out flyers to Union generals and politicians in which he stated the moral and mechanical values of his gun.

“It is confidently believed that no body of troops could be made to withstand the fire of such a death-dealing weapon, for the reason that men will not fight on such terms of inequality, or when there is no chance of victory …. The great object to be attained, and which every patriot should have at heart, is to crush the rebellion, and to do so, with the greatest possible savings of life and treasure. How can this be done? Only in one way – by crushing the military power of the rebellious states – and the same means of accomplishing that result is to strengthen our armies; and the way to do that, is to arm our soldiers with this gun.” — pg. 3-4 “The Man and His Gun,” by Richard Hoffman

Click to access Gatling_The_Man_and_the_Gun_Richard_Hoffman.pdf

Edwards, William Bennett. — “Dr. Gatling and His Gun.” American Rifleman April 1990: Pages 22-26, 65-67.

Johnson, F. Roy, and E. Frank Stephenson Jr. — The Gatling Gun and Flying Machine of Richard and Henry Gatling. Murfreesboro, NC: Johnson Publishing Company, 1979.

Routledge, Robert. — Discoveries and Inventions of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Crescent Books, 1989, Pages 145-150.

Wahl, Paul, and Don Toppel. — The Gatling Gun. New York: Arco Publishing Company, 1978.

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