How an Offaly man revolutionised naval warfare and marine transport

Charles Parsons interest in steam and engineering began at his home in Birr Castle

Parson’s Turbinia, 1897.

Parson’s Turbinia, 1897.

 

On February 7th, 1910 the Royal Navy welcomed a delegation of Abyssinian (Ethiopian) princes aboard the HMS Dreadnought, then the fastest and most powerful capital ship in the Home Fleet. An honour guard awaited the party and the Admiral of the Fleet, Sir William Wordsworth Fisher, was ready to provide the royal company with a personal guided tour of the vessel.

The group was well received and they showed their appreciation by showering many of the officers aboard with military decorations. They refused lunch as they could only consume food specially prepared by the royal kitchen and declined an invitation to have the ship’s 12 inch guns fired in honour of the Abyssinian Emperor as an unnecessarily kind gesture. By the time they departed the Royal Navy judged it to have been a complete success and the crew of the HMS Dreadnought felt they had done their diplomatic duty.

However, the reality was quite the opposite. The “Abyssinians princes” were in fact a group of young writers in theatrical make up and costumes. Known as the Bloomsbury circle, they included a young Virginia Woolf (then known as Virginia Stephen) and were led by Irishman Horace de Vere Cole, a serial prankster whose previous stunts included impersonating the uncle of the Sultan of Zanzibar during an audience with the Mayor of Cambridge. The affair became known as the “Dreadnought Hoax” and created a media sensation. Questions were raised in the Houses of Parliament and security arrangements for the navy had to be revised.

Ridiculing the Dreadnought and her crew was an affront to British pride. She represented a revolution in naval technology; upon her completion every other major vessel in service across the world suddenly became obsolete and would forever after be referred to as the “pre-dreadnoughts”. What made the ship so impressive was that despite her size and weight she was extremely fast, often travelling at speeds of over 21 knots, which allowed her to outpace all of her rivals. Yet like many of Great Britain’s most prominent success stories it wouldn’t have been possible but for the help of an Irish person. In fact in this case without the contributions of Offaly man Sir Charles Parsons the ship wouldn’t have been able to move at all.

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931).
Sir Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931).

The son of the third Earl of Rosse his father was a famous astronomer and builder of the “Leviathan of Parsonstown”. At that time it was considered the largest telescope in the world and it can still be found in the grounds of Birr Castle, the family seat. Parsons grew up in a highly stimulating environment, and often spent long hours in his father’s workshop designing and making his own machines.

After studying mathematics at both Trinity College Dublin and University of Cambridge, he undertook an apprenticeship at Armstrong Whitworth & Co in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, then considered one of the world’s leading engineering and manufacturing firms. In 1884, while working for Clarke, Chapman and Co as the head of electrical equipment development he pioneered a new more efficient, steam powered turbine engine. His invention was heralded as revolutionary and reduced the amount of fossil fuels required to generate energy significantly. His turbine was quickly adapted by power companies across the UK and greatly accelerated the campaign for widespread electrification.

The 1910 Dreadnought hoax, Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephens) (far left), Cork born Horace de Vere Cole ( far right). Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.
The 1910 Dreadnought hoax, Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephens) (far left), Cork born Horace de Vere Cole ( far right). Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

By 1889 he had founded CA Parsons and company dedicated to producing his patented turbine. Determined to win the business of the Royal Navy (who frequently dismissed the notion that his turbines could propel large naval vessels) Parsons designed and tested his own steam powered sloop, the Turbinia, which was capable of speeds of up to 35 knots. To prove their worth to his prospective buyers he arranged a little public spectacle of his own. Unlike Cole, Parsons decided to be a little more direct. During a naval review in 1897 in honour of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations he sailed his small craft right through the centre of the review, much to the chagrin of those taking part. However, despite the efforts of the fastest vessels in the fleet the Turbinia could not be caught and the merits of his invention were undeniable. He received his contract.

HMS Dreadnought at sea in 1906.
HMS Dreadnought at sea in 1906.

His turbines would also power the engines of the ill-fated RMS Lusitania and the more fortunate RMS Mauretania. The USS Arizona, which was sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, boasted four direct-drive Parsons steam turbine sets. Though he himself would die in 1931, Parson’s legacy, much like Cole’s, is a testament to what can be achieved if you’ve got a good idea and you’re willing to take the odd risk.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

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