With the demise of Ronald N. Irving, an English tradition in brass telescope manufacture with its roots in the early C18th has drawn to a close. Ronald N. Irving, "Ron" to those who knew him well, was the sole remaining proprietor of the instrument making firm H.N. Irving & Son's, carrying on his father's business and trade name.
He was born in Kingston Vale, Roehampton on 29th April 1915 to Horace & Mary Irving, the youngest of four sons and a daughter. In 1918 the Irving family moved to Cambridge House, Teddington. Ron received his schooling at St. Marks, Teddington. After a short interregnum between 1925 & 1927 when Horace Irving relocated his family and business to Hitcham in Suffolk, they returned to Cambridge House before moving to Kingston Road in 1930.
Ron joined the family firm in 1936 after serving an apprenticeship with Ottway, an instrument making company based at the Orion Works, Ealing. No. 258 Kingston Road was to be the Irving family residence for the rest of his life, and the business was conducted from a study in what had once been a drawing room, and a sprawling workshop at the end of a very long garden.
In 1940 Ron was seconded by the Ministry of Works to the Balham firm Cashmore & Co. as a charge hand, and later a progress chaser in their design office. Although this work was comparatively well paid, he did not like the office environment, or the endless problems in dealing with mechanical engineers who lacked the necessary skills to perform their tasks effectively. Yet he was obliged to remain seconded to the company throughout the war, despite trying to enlist with the Royal Navy. When his employer found out he had him placed on the reserved occupations register. The company obtained contracts primarily in the aircraft engineering sector. Ron remained with Cashmore's until the company closed in 1954.
At this time he also became a "volunteer" in the Home Guard, and it was in this capacity that he met his wife to be, Joan O' Higgins, who was working as an ambulance driver. They were married in 1942 shortly before the death of his father on Dec. 7th.
Telescope manufacture on the scale at which Ron and his father worked was never so lucrative as to provide a living. Ron took the bold decision to seek contract work from the Admiralty and in the mid 1950's the National Physical Laboratory. In this venture H.N. Irving & Son's were successful. The mainstay of the business was not telescope making but the manufacture of hypsometers, used by the NPL, Universities and the petro-chemical industry to calibrate high temperature and pressure, thermometric measuring instruments. Many of the "test baths", as Ron referred to them, went all over the world, some to unlikely destinations in Eastern Europe, and even India. This part of the business was sold in 1985.
Although Ron was want to point out that the hypsometer test baths were his bread and butter, it is for his work as a telescope maker for the amateur astronomical community that he is best remembered. Amateur telescopes in the 1930s & 1940s were either traditionally made small brass refractors on tabletop or timber tripods, or Newtonian reflectors made of timber, on alt-az tripod mounts. By the 1950s, Ron had moved the designs onto sound all metal construction, using aluminium alloy castings and precision worm and wheel drives. These were either alt-az or equatorially mounted, and supported on either a tall metal tripod, or a substantial column.
H.N. Irving & Son's gained a reputation for excellence in workmanship, which, though rivals tried to emulate, could not be matched.
Ron could also restore, repair or replicate antique brass telescopes and microscopes, make eyepieces, finder telescopes and guide 'scopes, rack & pinion focusers and diagonals, and although output declined in his later years, it was still formidable. To some extent this was simply because he outlived the few remaining traditional telescope makers.
In 1954 he was contracted to replace the 14-foot dome on "Mad Jack" Fuller's observatory at Brightling in East Sussex. The original dome was timber clad in lead sheet. Ron took the cladding as part payment, slowly recycling it into counterweights!
Two of his biggest restoration jobs, executed throughout most of the 1980s & 1990s were the complete rebuild of a 10-inch f/10 Newtonian, originally made by Geo. Calver c1894, now housed in Brayebrook Observatory, and the equatorial mount of a Cooke 8-inch refractor, now in Redhill.
Ron continued to make telescope parts and accessories until shortly before his death following a brief illness. He died in Kingston hospital on Thursday 29th September 2005. He is survived by his daughter Maureen, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Ronald N. Irving outside No. 258 Kingston Road.
This photograph would have been taken in the
mid 1950's when Ron was about 40 years of age.
Ron Irving in his study, September 2002.
To us amateur telescope makers Ron was a godsend. If you needed a part making for your telescope, or help in mending it, the man to see was Ron Irving.
I first met Ron on the last Saturday in June 1972, but I didn't really get to know him personally until a decade later when I began visiting him regularly. Every Saturday morning I would sit at his desk, looking out of the window, drinking tea, munching biscuits, chewing the fat, and generally putting the world to rights.
There was always some object of curiosity on his desk. A job left by another amateur astronomer, or a job awaiting collection. Ron seemed to thrive on the seemingly impossible. All he needed was a halfway decent drawing and an example of the instrument maker's art would ensue.
Unlike most other telescope makers in the UK, Ron possessed the experience and ability to replicate Victorian instrument parts and attend to period detail fashioned in matching brass alloys and lacquer finishes. He machined his own terminals and screws in exquisite detail, and was a master at the art of silver soldering. Many of the brass and bronze parts he made were not simply machined from bar stock, but part turned from tube, hard soldered, and then finished.
He was the first machinist I met who could use chasing tools accurately. Screw cutting on a lathe is most commonly done with either a button die in a tail stock die holder; with a die head or with a driven single point form tool. Ron was able to chase screw threads by hand, which saved a good deal of time. The knack was getting the male and female threads to mate.
He was the only man I knew who could make high quality large brass rack and pinion focusers with telescoping drawtubes, adjustable pinion clearance and variable focus pressure. The rackmount he made for my 10-inch Calver is unique in having interchangeable racktubes, of 4-inch & 8-inch rack length. It is also able to carry loads up to 10 lbsf.
He was also a master in threading thin wall brass tube by hand. Traditionally this used to be done on a hob & drag lathe. Ron could do the job using a hand chaser. He would turn the female screw thread on the inside diameter of a thin wall brass tube and machine the collar, used to carry the telescoping brass tube, to match. The screw threads were very fine, as fine as 40 tpi. There was little margin for error. And yet I have two of his rack & pinion focusers with such threaded collars on the racktubes, made almost 50 years apart, and they are interchangeable!
It is the sign of a master craftsman that the most exacting and taxing lathework is accomplished with seemingly effortless ease. I needed a position circle making to carry my Grubb bifilar micrometer. There was a 4-inch PA circle lying in a box of bits and pieces left by another client, a collector of antique telescopes. I negotiated the acquisition of it and asked Ron to marry it to a worm and wheel drive mounted on a brass sleeve.
The PA circle was a graduated German silver annulus, 4-inches OD by 3-inches ID and only 16swg (1/16-inch thickness) engraved in quadrants in half-degree intervals, read by opposing verniers to half an arc minute. I was in his workshop watching him as he carried out the work. He had already profiled a thin brass ring and hard soldered it to the body of the sleeve. This was intended to carry the PA circle. I was puzzled as to how he intended fastening the PA circle to it. I assumed he was going to silver solder it in place. But not a bit of it.
To my amazement he mounted the sleeve in a self centering 3 jaw scroll chuck on one of his Boxford lathes, and hand chased a 100 tpi thread on the brass ring's OD. He then removed the sleeve from the chuck, fitted a purpose turned steel collar with a shouldered 4-inch bore, and located the PA circle within it. He then hand chased an internal 100 tpi screw thread, to match that turned on the brass ring. The PA circle was then screwed onto the brass ring, aligned to suit the opposing verniers so that the micrometer would be horizontal at PA 90° / 270°, and a 1/64-inch dia. hole drilled through the thread and a little silver pin tapped into it so the PA circle was locked in place. An amazing job calling for the most consummate skill, performed by a man in his mid 70's with chronic arthritis, perched on a bar stool at his favourite lathe, and all done in less than an hour.
There was a lathe in his workshop modified to machine wormwheels. Ron made precision worm and wheel drives, and he would mount the worm in roller bearings. In this practice we disagreed. For the worm and wheel drive on my rebuilt 10-inch Calver I wanted no end float in RA.
I designed a method of mounting the worm, which involved a top hat bracket mounted on a back plate, and an adjustable centre screw to locate the end of the worm. The top hat bracket prevented the worm moving axially by the device of a leadless screw thread.
The difficulty in making it lay in getting the clearance down to almost nothing. When the worm was laid in the lower half of the top hat bracket, and the upper part bolted in place, the thread-form would need to match perfectly. The problem was, how to do it.
Ron artlessly revealed his ingenuity by using a very cunning dodge that had not occurred to me. He milled out the bronze block that was to become the top hat bracket. But after splitting it with a slitting saw and clamping the two halves back together, he drilled the hole to the thread-form's root diameter slightly off the split line. The effect of this ruse was to enable the worm to be bedded into the chasing, and the upper part of the top hat bracket bolted down, without there being any gap caused by the slitting saw when splitting the block after the leadless screw thread had been chased. The result was a perfect job, with no evidence of the sleight of hand needed to produce it.
Over the couple of decades I took jobs to him, he would frequently complain how awkward a lot of them were. Being a mechanical engineering draughtsman I would prepare an engineering drawing in 3rd angle projection, dimensioned and toleranced. But I never included instructions as to how the parts were to be made.
Ron's experience at Cashmore's and his subsequent work for the NPL made him a very able reader of engineering drawings. Nevertheless some of my designs took quite a bit of explaining. He always simply said, "I'll see what I can do." And I always knew full well that meant a good job would be done, sooner or later.
Sometimes mating parts made on separate occasions needed remedial work to get them to fit as intended. There would be a good deal of to'ing and fro'ing between observatory and workshop, which, on the face of it, to an outsider would be a tedious business, but to me was a source of delight because it got me into his workshop and enabled me to see the master at work and in his element.
I was, in a sense, in a privileged position. He was very particular who he allowed to even see his workshop, let alone take them into it. I have met several other clients, some of whom had work done over a far longer period, who nonetheless had never seen his workshop. All they had seen were the finished jobs on his desk in that front room at No. 258, his Aladdin's Cave.
Ron was notorious for his disregard of completing jobs in good time. He worked long hours, often until 10 o' clock at night, 7 days a week, but usually on the hypsometer test baths. Work on telescopes and telescope parts was carried out to an erratic and unpredictable schedule. Occasionally small parts would be finished sooner than expected. Others would be put to one side whilst work was being done for another customer. I soon learned that the only way to ensure work on the restoration of my 10-inch Calver progressed at anything like a timely fashion was by my constant attention and presence in his Teddington workshop.
One of the first jobs I asked him to do was a Cassegrain secondary cell and spider. I ordered it in June 1971. A year later I happened to be in the Kingston area and I took the opportunity to call on him. I was ushered into his study by his wife, Joan. Sitting behind his typewriter Ron beamed across at me, told me he'd been expecting me, and handed me the completed job.
Unfinished jobs cluttered his study and workshop. Jobs left by clients who over the passing of many years had probably forgotten all about them. What ensured you got to the front of an ever-lengthening queue was to visit him or telephone him regularly. Which of course enabled you to get to know the man, and not just the craftsman.
It was also made clear that he wasn't interested in money. A job that would probably have taken a week's work, several hours each evening, and would, if done by any other machinist cost well over £100, was handed over with no request for payment. You would have to ask him how much you owed him. And he would always reply, "Whatever you feel it's worth." And if you offered what he thought was too much he would barter you down! This was a double-edged sword. You felt you were taking advantage of his good nature when he wouldn't accept the going rate, but you did not wish to offend him by insisting he take more than he was prepared to accept.
After Joan's death in May 2001 he got into the habit of chatting to me by the fire in his dining room. I would make myself a cup of tea and sit with him listening to him reminisce about his life. He lamented the passing of the English craftsman, the difficulty of obtaining materials and castings, and the cost of machine tools, when, that is, you could find them.
With his passing, the last in a line of brass telescope makers stretching back to the early C18th has finally come to an end. Ron was the very last. He was my mentor as well as a very good friend, and the instruments he made for me, and others, are a lasting testimony to his skill. Saturday mornings will never be the same. It was a privilege knowing him.