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Charles May (1800-60)

Building Steps to the Stars

If astronomy in the nineteenth century could be summed up in one phrase it would probably be telescopes grew up. At the time, few people realised that the new larger telescopes would require engineering on a much heavier scale than could be provided by the traditional scientific instrument makers of the era. Perhaps the answer lay with the new agricultural or railway engineering companies?

One man to emerge with suitable experience to tackle the problem was Charles May, Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (FRAS), Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers (MICE), chemist, scientist, engineer, and astronomer.

The Man


Charles May

Charles May was born on 04 May 1800 to Quaker parents living in Alton, Hampshire. He was the eldest of eight children. One of his brothers was Francis May who later co-founded the Bryant and May match company. By 1806 the family had moved to Ampthill in Bedfordshire and it was from here that Charles was sent in his early teens as an apprentice to Mr Sims, a chemist of Stockport. He married Mr Sims’s daughter, Ann, on 24 April 1824 and, by 1830, they had their own family of two sons and two daughters, all born at Ampthill.

It was at this point that Charles became interested in astronomy. At the suggestion of his friends Admiral William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) and Dr John Lee (1783-1866), both of whom lived in nearby Aylesbury, in 1836 Charles joined the Royal Astronomical Society. He became an associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers and moved to Suffolk to work for J R & A Ransomes of Ipswich. (I am led to believe that Charles moved to Bolton Lane, Ipswich although the house number is unknown to me.) Charles subsequently became a partner of Ransomes and the firm adopted the title "Ransomes and May". The firm had been founded in 1789 and had remained under the sole guidance of the Quaker Ransome family for nearly fifty years; Charles was the first person outside the family to join the board. The firm was one of the first to make engineering products with sufficient accuracy to enable parts to be interchanged between individual products.

In 1841, Ransome and May were granted a patent for "compressed wooden trenails" for attaching railway rail chairs to sleepers. Subsequent increases in locomotive weights meant that a wooden fastening between the chair and sleeper was not strong enough and the product became obsolete.

In 1851, when the attention of many was on the Great Exhibition in London, it was seen as a triumph for Ipswich to attract the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to the town. At the event, Charles filled the post of local secretary.

The partnership of "Ransomes and May" was dissolved in 1851 after the company had successfully exhibited at the Great Exhibition. May's place in the partnership was taken by his nephew, William Dillwyn Sims [1]. Charles then moved to London, becoming an independent consulting engineer and, in 1855, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. It was said that were very few, if any, court cases with an engineering perspective around this time that didn’t involve Charles as an expert witness. Thereafter he suffered a long decline in his health, dying on 13 August 1860.

During his lifetime, Charles engineered several telescopes, amongst them the Northumberland Refractor at the Cambridge University Observatory and the Great Equatorial and Airy Transit Circle, both at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. See our pages on Ransomes for further details of Charles's work and the telescope mounts which he and the firm engineered.)

The Northumberland Refractor

This telescope dates from 1838 and was designed by George Airy. It is still to be found at the Cambridge University Observatory on Madingley Road, to the west of the city, and is currently open to the public on Saturday evenings throughout the year.

The 12 inch object glass of the instrument is supported by a wooden tube on an English equatorial mounting, also of wood. The mounting was made more rigid by being placed under mechanical stress; indeed, the apparatus is an early example of a "stressed structure". At first, tension was considered to stress the wood, but it was found to be impractical, so Airy used compression instead. Ransomes and May manufactured the cast iron parts, most notably the top and bottom ends of the polar frame.

Although the telescope has a divided circle for reading right ascension it did not originally have one for declination, instead relying on a curious arrangement of calibrated rods, one end of which was attached to the polar cage of the English equatorial mounting and the other to the eyepiece-end of the telescope tube. Longer or shorter rods were used as the telescope pointed further north or south. After a few years this arrangement was abandoned as impractical and a not-very-accurate circle substituted. When the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of Neptune was about to be celebrated in 1996, it was found that the circle was not good enough to locate the planet so the original mechanism was reinstated, this time using a builder's tape measure in place of the original calibrated rods.

The Greenwich Altazimuth

After George Airy became Astronomer Royal in 1835, he set about modernising the Greenwich Observatory and he turned to Charles May for the production of up-to-date instruments.

To obtain lunar position observations during the four days either side of new Moon, something not possible with the existing transit telescope due to the glare from the Sun, Airy designed an altazimuth telescope of 3¾ inch aperture in 1843. Ransomes and May constructed a rigid mounting of massive iron castings for the telescope, the whole instrument weighing several tons. The instrument did not become ready until 1847 but thereafter was in regular use for 50 years; it is now part of the Science Museum Reserve Collection.

The Airy Transit Circle

George Airy then required a new transit telescope to define the Greenwich Meridian and, in 1850, Charles May produced the exceptionally well-engineered instrument that still defines the Prime Meridian of the world. The optical parts for the eight inch refractor were supplied by Troughton and Simms. The telescope saw its first light on 04 January 1851. Airy was, apparently, hoping for the first day of the new half century (i.e. 01 January) but the weather defeated him. The pivots of the instrument are made of chilled cast iron, a patented innovation of Ransomes. Pleased with the new telescope, Airy ordered a duplicate for the Cape of Good Hope Observatory. It came into use in 1852; by 1910 it had outlived its usefulness and was scrapped.

The "Trophy" Telescope

The Great Exhibition of 1851 provided manufacturing engineers of all types with an opportunity to display their talents to the world. For the occasion, Charles May produced an instrument considered to be the prize of the Exhibition. It had an object glass of eleven inches by Ross of London. There were two finder telescopes and the whole apparatus stood around sixteen feet high. After the Exhibition closed the telescope was owed by James William Grant (1788-1865) and installed in a masonry observatory at Wester Elchies in Moray, Scotland. The telescope was not extensively used due to its owner’s poor health and it disappeared following his death in 1865.

The Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth (Admiral Smyth’s son), regarded the instrument as "excellent": see [2, 3, 4].

The Greenwich Great Equatorial

When the honour of discovering Neptune went to the Berlin observatory in 1846, George Airy was persuaded that the Greenwich Observatory should have a large aperture telescope to place future such discoveries within its grasp. He commissioned the Southeast (or Great) Equatorial, produced by Ransomes and Sims in 1859. (William Dillwyn Sims, a nephew of Charles, had taken his place on the board of directors of the firm following Charles' departure.) This was a twelve inch refracting telescope on an English equatorial mount similar to the Northumberland of twenty years earlier; however, the cage was made of hollow iron tubes rather than timber. The telescope tube was still of timber however. The telescope originally also had the "calibrated rod" declination indicator, but this was later replaced by a circle reading north polar distance (NPD). (NPD is the angular distance of a body from the the north celestial pole.) The north pier of the mounting of this telescope was the largest single iron casting in the world at the time of its construction.

In 1893 a 28 inch photo-visual lens became available and the original tube was removed and a larger one fitted to carry the new, bigger, lens. It is a testament to the quality of the mounting that it could successfully carry a telescope over twice the size of the original! This telescope is still available for amateur use by the Flamsteed Astronomical Society.

Charles May’s Observatory

In 1851, John Weale published "Observatories of London and Vicinity" a kind of "Bradshaw’s Railway Guide" for astronomers. It listed the score or so of public and private observatories that could be visited in one day from the Metropolis. it described Charles's observatory thus:

Mr May, of the firm of Messrs Ransome and May, engineers of Ipswich, who have so ably carried out Mr Airy’s plans in the erection of the altitude and azimuth instrument and the large transit circle at Greenwich, has favoured us with the following account of an observatory constructed by himself at his private residence, and which he intends to furnish with good instruments.

Its dimensions and general plan resemble the Bedford Observatory described by Captain Smyth in his Cycle. The transit room is 17 ft long, 12 ft wide, and 9 ft high. Two very substantial stone piers are provided for an instrument which may be of 6 or 7 ft focal length if required.

The equatorial room is 16 ft in diameter, covered by a dome similar in construction to Dr Lee’s; the floor is 4 ft higher than that of the transit room, surrounding objects rendering a little elevation desirable; this room is built with a very solid foundation for the instrument, the lower portion being brickwork in cement, the upper Portland stone; the north pier is about 8 ft by 3 ft at the floor line, diminishing upwards to about 6 ft by 3 ft at a height of 6 ft from the floor. Upon the brickwork at this height is a Portland stone 6 ft by 3 ft, and 10 in in thickness, forming the support of two other blocks of the same kind of stone, which have a clear aperture of 15 in between them, similar to the two piers for a transit instrument. The object proposed by this form is to support the upper end of the polar axis in such a manner as to allow of the lower transits of the circumpolar stars being seen by the equatorially-mounted telescope. The shutter of the dome is in one piece, turning on the apex of the dome as a centre, and resting upon rollers at the base, and is moved by a rack and pinion. The full opening at the equator is about one hour of time.

So far as regards instruments, this observatory is not complete; a 20 in transit, by Cary, is mounted on an iron casting cemented across the tops of the transit piers, and there is an indifferent clock with a dead-beat escapement and wooden pendulum.

For the equatorial room a telescope, with a very fine object-glass of 6¾ in clear aperture by Merz, of Munich, is mounted upon a cast-iron stand with polar axis and arcs divided so as readily to find an object; this stand is intended to be superseded by a polar axis upon the same general principle as that in the Corporation Observatory in Liverpool.

It is clear from the above that Charles's observatory was a substantial edifice, around the same size, although not as tall, Orwell Park Observatory. However, there is an implication that it was unfinished and, given that the book was published in the same year that Charles left Ipswich to become a consulting engineer in London, the facility may never have come into full operation.

Other Achievements

Charles built observatories for Dr John Lee, Arthur Kett Barclay and Admiral Smyth.

An interesting sideline is found in the biography of Sir George Airy:

A small assistance was rendered to me by Charles May (of the firm Ransomes and May), which has contributed much to the good order of the papers in the Observatory. Mr. Robert Ransome had remarked my method of punching holes in the papers by a hand punch, the places of the holes being guided by holes in a piece of card, and said that they could furnish me with something better. Accordingly on August 28th 1843 Mr. May sent me the punching machine, the prototype of all now used in the Observatory.

It would appear, therefore, that Charles was the originator of the humble office hole punch!

To conclude, consider the words of an article published in the Ipswich "Evening Star" of 28 June 1958:

Mr John Croydon, of the old established jewellery firm, found it in London. It was a silver cigar-box and it immediately aroused his interest. For on the inside of the lid was an inscription which proved its original owner to be an Ipswich man. This said that the box was presented “to Charles May in commemoration of the visit of the steamship 'Manchester' to Ipswich (September 7th, 1849), and in acknowledgement of his generous services to the Crew on that Occasion”. Then followed eight names, presumably those of the ship’s officers. This is not all. On the outside of the lid was an engraved depiction of a two funnel paddle steamer – presumably S. S. "Manchester" – with a background which may or may not be intended to represent the approach to Ipswich Docks. Mr. Croydon immediately decided that the proper place for this beautiful example of craftsmanship was in Ipswich.

He also delved into its story. It’s an interesting one. Turning into the Orwell, the "Manchester" signalled for a pilot to bring her up to Ipswich. A man claiming to possess the necessary knowledge for this important task came aboard – and then the trouble started! First the "Manchester" narrowly escaped running down a Dutch schooner – at anchor! – and later ran aground on Redgate Hard. Fortunately no particular damage was done but this was through no virtue of the man who was in charge of the vessel’s navigation. Even so, it might have been worse. Ipswich Regatta was being held that day, and think of the chaos, and perhaps loss of life, had that erratically piloted steamer charged wildly amongst those little ships! But where does Mr. Charles May come into this? A partner in the firm of Messrs. Ransomes and May, he brought the matter up at the next meeting of the Ipswich Dock Commission. Hence the gratitude of the "Manchester"’s officers. For it seems obvious that following Mr. May’s protest, special precautions were afterwards taken to see that when a ship signalled for a pilot she got a man qualified for the job – not some unscrupulous optimist tempted by the fee.


SS Manchester

The names inscribed on the box are:-

John Fowler

Henry Hinde

I. (J?(ohn)) Scott Russell

William Swan

John T. Leather

Henry Fowler

James Potter

Richard Peacock

"Croydons" of Tavern Street negotiated with the London dealer who was asking for £32-10-0. The box arrived in the Ransomes Board Room in August 1958 in return for the sum of £25 only.





Letter from Prof. Grant to the Editor, MNRAS, v. 23, no. 1, pp. 1-13, 1862.


The "Elchies" Equatoreal, Astronomical Register, v. 1, pp.6 and 7.


Professor C. Piazzi Smyth on the Elchies Telescope in 1862: from the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Astronomical Register, v. 1, p.149.

Bill Barton, FRAS