Bramah dropped out of the Manchester Grammar School at the age of 16, having been consistently close to the bottom of each class and in each subject. Despite this, he died at the age of 74 a successful and admired author with a wide and deep knowledge of chemistry, physics, law, philosophy, the classics, literature, the occult and ordnance, and was a recognised world expert in a branch of numismatics.
After leaving the Manchester Grammar School, he went into farming, first as a farm pupil and then in his own right. He was supported by his father who had risen in a very short time from a factory hand to a wealthy man. The farming enterprise cost his father over £100,000 in today’s money. It was while he was farming that he began to contribute local vignettes to the Birmingham News, which gave him his first taste for journalism and writing. Later he wrote a tongue-in-cheek book about his adventure in farming which, unsurprisingly, found few buyers and was eventually remaindered and pulped.
After the farming debacle, his father agreed to support him while he made his way in Grub Street. He was fortunate enough to obtain a position as secretary to Jerome K. Jerome and rose to edit one of Jerome's magazines. After leaving Jerome he edited other journals for a publishing firm which went into bankruptcy.
Following these unpromising beginnings, Bramah attained commercial and critical success with his creation of Kai Lung, the itinerant story-teller. He first appears in The Wallet of Kai Lung which was rejected by eight publishers before Grant Richards, who was published it in 1900. It was still in print a hundred years later.
Kai Lung rose guardedly to his feet, with many gestures of polite assurance and having bowed several times to indicate his pacific nature, he stood in an attitude of deferential admiration. At this display the elder and less attractive of the maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of apprehension in order to conceal the direction of her flight.
In particular, there is among this august crowd of Mandarins one Wang Yu, who has departed on three previous occasions without bestowing the reward of a single cash. If the feeble and covetous Wang Yu will place in his very ordinary bowl the price of one of his exceedingly ill-made pipes, this unworthy person will proceed.
After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants.
The Kai Lung stories are studded with proverbs and aphorisms, such as the following
Bramah also wrote politico-science fiction . His book What might Have Been, published in 1907, was acknowledged by George Orwell it as one of the formative sources for Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell credited a little-known Bramah dystopian novel, "The Secret of the League" (1907) with having given a considerably accurate prediction of the rise of Fascism. In this book, a Socialist government heavily taxes the middle classes, greatly expands a civil service, and engenders a pension crisis, before being overthrown by a capital strike.
At a time when the English Channel had yet to be crossed by an aeroplane, Bramah foresaw aerial express trains travelling at 10,000 feet, a nationwide wireless-telegraphy network (e-mail?), a proto-fax machine and a cipher typewriter similar to the German Enigma machine.
In 1914 Bramah created Max Carrados, the blind detective. Given the somewhat outlandish idea that a blind man could be a detective, in the introduction to the second Carrados book The Eyes of Max Carrados Bramah compared his hero’s achievements to those of real life blind people such as Nicholas Saunderson, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Blind Jack of Knaresborough the road builder, John Fielding the Bow Street Magistrate of whom it was said he could identify 3,000 thieves by their voices, and Helen Keller. Bramah’s sympathy for and understanding of the blind was both sincere and practical.
The Max Carrados stories appeared alongside Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine, indeed they had top billing and frequently outsold his eminent contemporary even if they never achieved the longevity of Holmes.