Sunday, July 10, 2016

Luke May and His Custom Microscope(s)

During his career, criminologist Luke S. May (1892-1965) handled hundreds of firearms cases. He also examined evidence in the form of hair, fibers, dust particles, tool marks, paint chips and on and on. All that meant he spent a lot of time peering through a microscope. For one firearms case in 1921, he sent the Police Chief in Aberdeen, Washington a preliminary report, but said, “I have been unable to complete my tests.”
Early microscope, ca 1920.
National Institutes of Health.

May explained some of the features he still had to determine and went on, “My eyes played out on me having used the microscope too much in the last few days.”

So it comes as no surprise that he tried to find a better way. May’s answer began with his invention of what he called the “Revelaroscope.” (At the time, his detective agency was called the Revelare International Secret Service.). The Seattle Times published (July 16, 1922) a long article with the headline, “Mastodon of the Microscope Family.” The optics of the unit looked roughly like an extra-tall metal beer keg. That was anchored to a steel post and the whole apparatus stood taller than Luke, who, at about 5-foot 10-inches, was considered tall for that era. It weighed nearly 450 pounds.

The crucial feature was an eye-high view screen that displayed the magnified image – no more squinting through a small ocular. The news report said, “The tiniest strand of human hair is made to resemble a section of the trunk of a giant spruce tree.”

Unfortunately, the technology of the times was incapable of delivering the promise of May’s design. For one thing, the long light paths made the device very susceptible to vibration. And it required a strong light source, which generate a lot of heat that created convection currents. But with all that, the Revelaroscope had great promotional value … important since May ran a private lab and needed all the free publicity he could get.
Magnascope. Popular Science Magazine, 1931

May continued to improve the Revelaroscope over the next decade, eventually changing the name to “Magnascope.” In the spring of 1929, he applied for a patent under the title of “Comparison Magnascope.” During the long approval process, Popular Science Magazine published an article about the use of microscopes in crime detection. The writer said, “The tools of the trade now range from pocket glasses, smaller than a quarter, to a colossal apparatus, tall as a man and weighing half a ton.”

That “colossal” tool was, of course, the Comparison Magascope … now apparently more than doubled in weight. So the giant device continued to have publicity value, even though May by then used a standard commercial comparison microscope for his closest work. Still, the patent form noted that use of the standard scope was “extremely tedious and wearing, and straining upon the eyes.” With his new design “such inspections and comparisons can be made with the normal vision of the two eyes.”

The patent on the Magnascope was granted in 1934. So far as anyone knows, May’s prototype was the only one ever built. The unit was around for some time after May’s death in 1965, but the family eventually lost track of where is was. It may have since been disassembled for scrap or even just discarded.
References: L. S. May, Comparison Magnascope, Patent No. 1,974,654, United States Patent Office, Washington, D. C. (September 25, 1934).
Luke S. May, Luke S. May Papers, University of Washington Special Collections, Seattle (1969).
Edwin W. Teale, “Microscope Detectives,” Popular Science Magazine, New York City (December 1931).