Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun that Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It is not a technical history of the world’s first functional machine gun or the typical birth-to-death biography of one of the great inventers of the 19th century. Rather, Julia Keller, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, scatters factual material on Richard Gatling and the development of his gun throughout a narrative of the social climate that fostered American invention during the mid-to-late 1800’s. Tinkering over a workbench was so popular in the 19th century that a young Abraham Lincoln held a patent (apparently the only U.S. President to do so), and Mark Twain held three. Keller argues that the patent system became the “soul” of America by permitting even those lacking in formal education and political power to not only stake claim to new products but to profit from them as well.
The life of Richard Gatling, who based his gun’s design on a seed planter that he had patented when he was only 26 years old, provides a strong case in support of Keller’s premise. The reader learns how the process of invention changed Gatling and America, and how Gatling changed the process of invention. My most frequent reaction while reading Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel was “Hmmm . . . I didn’t know that.” Other readers of 19th-century American history likely will find themselves having the same reaction.
Review Submitted by: Mary Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended