Ruling the waves – Norman Freeman on turbine pioneer Charles Algernon Parsons
An Irishman’s Diary
Charles Algernon Parsons: Offaly-born engineer’s work on turbines revolutionised maritime industry
A sad and unlovely sight beside the railway station at Howth is a long-abandoned steel fabrication plant.
Once it was a place loud with clanging and hammering as metal was cut, bent and shaped by heavy machinery. Showers of bright sparks sprayed towards the concrete floor when skilled men in special helmets and protective clothing welded together sections of steel.
I often watched this activity because I did some work for the company as a publicist. Huge steel tanks, being conveyed along roadways on massive slow-moving transporters accompanied by gardaí on motorcycles created photographic or even TV interest for the national and provincial media. These tanks were being carried to the processing plants of the Irish dairy industry where they would hold milk and its by-products.
The factory at Howth was an offshoot of the parent industry in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the northeast part of England. Its forerunners had been founded years before by Charles Algernon Parsons, the youngest son of William Parsons, Earl of Rosse, the famous astronomer of Birr Castle, Co Offaly.
Born in 1854, Charles was educated in the family home as were his two elder brothers. Their highly accomplished tutors emphasised the importance of the sciences. The experimental use of steam-powered machines by his father gave Charles a special interest in their workings. He went on to study mathematics at Trinity College Dublin and later in Cambridge.
Unusually for someone of his aristocratic background, he began as an apprentice at an engineering works in Newcastle. As he worked his way upwards in a number of companies, he gained much experience in the use of electrical power and other sources of energy
Among other things, Parsons became well aware that the use of steam driven pistons to rotate marine propellor shafts was wasteful of energy, noisy and limited the speed of the vessel.
He established his own company and after some years of painstaking experiments he eventually developed a system of forcing the steam through a series of multi-vaned wheels that turned the central axle rotor. This turbine system harnessed and controlled energy in a highly efficient way. Much greater speeds could be gained.
Because his invention was such a revolutionary development, Parsons had some difficulty in convincing the crusty sea dogs in the British Admiralty of its merits. To demonstrate his system’s efficacy he built a small, experimental vessel that he called Turbinia. It could cleave through the water at a speed of almost 60 kilometres an hour.
Then, in 1897, he made an audacious intrusion into a spectacular maritime review. At Spithead some 170 British naval vessels, including 50 battleships, paraded in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The uninvited Turbinia, with Parsons and his 12-year-old daughter Rachel on board, easily eluded the patrol vessels and went racing over the water at a speed never seen before. The Lords of the Admiralty were astonished.
Parsons’s bold promotional gambit served to change minds and attitudes.
It had significant consequences. Within two years two British warships were launched that utilised Parsons’s turbines. They were eventually followed by others, giving them advantages in terms of speed, manoeuvrability, cost and convenience. Then passenger ships began to install the turbines, followed by other kinds of vessels.
His company thrived as it manufactured turbines to meet increasing demands. For years, the engine-rooms of British-built ships invariably had a Parsons turbine. I saw this for myself many years ago when I was shown round the engine-room of the first ship I ever served on. It was there, very impressive in its casing. The ship’s engineers had great regard and even fondness for it.
Sir Charles Algernon Parsons died in 1931 while on a cruise with his wife. A memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey in London.
Over the decades the company’s operations, structure and name changed. It merged with other firms. Rolls Royce took over in 1989 and was itself bought out in 1997 by Siemens, the German conglomerate, to form part of its power generating division.
The Turbinia can be seen at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne while its original turbine is on display at the Science Museum in London.
The Irish Academy of Engineering awards the Parsons Medal annually to an engineer deemed to have made an exceptional contribution to the practice of engineering.On the grounds of Birr Castle, where Charles Parsons grew up, there is a plaque to the memory and achievements of this remarkable figure.