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Charles May

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Charles May (1801-1860) a partner in Ransomes and May

1801 May 4th. Born the son of Samuel May and Ann his wife at Alton, Hampshire

1829 April 5th. Birth of son Robert Charles May

1836 Became a partner in Ransomes and May

1836 Charles May of Ampthill, a Millwright, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

1851 A visitor in Lowestoft (age 49 born Alton), Civil Engineer. [2]

1859 Charles May, 3 Great George Street, Westminster.[3]

1860 August 10th. Died

1860 December 12th. Anne, his wife, died.


1861 Obituary [4]

Charles May was born at Alton, in Hampshire, in the year 1800.

His parents were members of the Society of Friends, and his early education was only such as was then given to the sons of country tradesmen, connected with that religious body.

At a comparatively early age, he was articled to a chemist in Stockport, and on finishing his apprenticeship, he commenced business on his own account, at Ampthill, in Bedfordshire. There he gradually added the manufacture to the selling of drugs; growing the herbs, and exercising his mechanical ingenuity in the construction of machines for grinding, and the apparatus necessary for the chemical extraction of oils and essences.

These employments, did not, however, furnish sufficient scope for his love of mechanics, and ultimately, he added a general millwright’s shop to his other business. He had, from an early period, been an earnest advocate of high-pressure steam, used expansively, for promoting economy in the saving of fuel; and among his early but first works, was the construction, partly with his own hands, of an engine for driving a saw mill at Luton, to which he applied this system with signal success. That engine has only, since his decease, been superseded by one of larger construction.

He was also a strenuous advocate for the use of the 'steam jacket' at a time when manufacturing engineers, from the slight additional difficulty of construction it involved, resolutely opposed its introduction.

Among the many works, which he executed, while at Ampthill, was the Observatory of Dr. Lee, at Hartwell; and from that time may be dated his intimate connexion with the astronomical world, in which, to the end of his career, he took a well-known and prominent interest.

Anxious to extend his chemical business, he determined to establish a branch in London, for grinding drugs without adulteration. For this new concern, he made his own machinery, and so well did he succeed, that this effort laid the foundation of his future success, in the new path which soon opened before him.

In 1836, Mr. May became a partner in the well-known firm of Messrs. Ransomes, at Ipswich; and the rapid extension of that business, during the period of his connection with it, was matter of more than local knowledge. While there, Mr. May invented the method of compressing the wooden treenails used as fastenings for railway chairs, a system which has been all but universally adopted, on both British and foreign lines.

During the same period, under the superintendence of Professor Airy, F.R.S., (Hon. M. Inst. C.E.,) the Astronomer Royal, he constructed, with an accuracy never previously attained, the great transit circle, and the altazimuth, at the Greenwich Observatory. He also erected an observatory for his own use, and furnished it with a transit instrument and clock, and a Merz achromatic telescope, 6.5 inches in aperture. Amongst other improvements introduced by him, may be cited the process of 'chilling,' for the pivots of large instruments.

In the year 1851, the wider scope presented for the branches of engineering and the theoretical department to which he had devoted himself, induced him to settle in London, where, for a short time, he was in partnership with Mr. Hawksley (M.Inst.C.E.).

That connection was soon dissolved, and Mr. May’s individual practice so rapidly increased, that for many years before his death, there were few important lawsuits, connected with patents, on which he was not consulted, and he was engaged, either on one side, or the other, in most of the contested engineering cases involving important results.

Mr. May was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and of the Royal Astronomical Society. His connection with the Institution of Civil Engineers dated from 1836, when he became an Associate; in 1846, he was transferred to the class of Members, and in 1848, he was elected a Member of the Council, upon which he served up to the end of 1855. He was a very regular attendant at the Meetings, and he frequently took part in the discussions, his observations being characterised chiefly by their practical bearing.

He was a natural mechanic, and he possessed perseverance in the acquisition of knowledge, which would have enabled him to take a high position in the engineering world, if he had been regularly brought up for the profession.

He was much esteemed by his family and friends, who were grieved by seeing him for some years gradually sinking under a painful disease, which eventually proved fatal on the 10th of August, 1860.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1836 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. 1851 Census
  3. 1859 Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  4. 1861 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries