Steam turbine blades from an early sketch by Sir Charles Parsons

OBJECTS OF ENGINEERING-steam turbine notebook

Steam turbine blades from an early sketch by Sir Charles Parsons
Steam turbine blades from an early sketch by Sir Charles Parsons

Charles Algernon Parsons, Steam Turbine Notebook, 1894-1897 

Last time we looked at the unconventional side of Parsons inventiveness (his quest for diamonds), this time we look at the work he is best known for. Parsons’ notebook features notes, calculations and sketches by Parsons on experimental parallel-flow (or axial-flow steam turbines) and related material. It is fully readable on our virtual archive.

Best known for his invention of the steam turbine, Parsons also developed optical equipment for searchlights and telescopes and contributed to marine engineering. He is also known for inventing the Auxetophone, an early compressed air gramophone

Parsons was born in 1854, the sixth and youngest son of the astronomer and engineer William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse and President of the Royal Society. First studying at Trinity College, Dublin, he then graduated from St John’s College, Cambridge in 1877 with a first-class mathematics degree. Unusually for his class, he became an apprentice at the engineering firm of WH Armstrong, Newcastle: here he developed a steam engine at his own cost. He then joined Kitson’s, Yorkshire, working on torpedoes, followed by a position as head of the electrical equipment department with a ship engine manufacturer Clarke, Chapman and Co, Newcastle.

It was in Newcastle in 1884 that Parsons developed a turbine engine and an electrical generator. Parsons’ steam turbine made cheap and plentiful electricity possible and revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare. Previous steam engines had been so loud and noisy that complaints about the noise of one in Manchester had forced the power station to close. Within five years 350 of Parsons’s steam turbines had been supplied.

Invented by Gustaf de Laval, the best turbine in 1884 was an impulse design that subjected the mechanism to huge centrifugal forces and so had limited output due to the weakness of the materials available. Parsons explained that his appreciation of the scaling issue led to his 1884 breakthrough on the compound steam turbine in his 1911 Rede Lecture:

“It seemed to me that moderate surface velocities and speeds of rotation were essential if the turbine motor was to receive general acceptance as a prime mover. I therefore decided to split up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series, so that the velocity of the steam nowhere should be great…I was also anxious to avoid the well-known cutting action on metal of steam at high velocity.”

In 1889 he founded  CA Parsons and Co, Newcastle which would manufacture his design of turbo-generators. In the same year he also set up the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company (DisCO). In 1890, DisCo opened Forth Banks Power Station, the first power station in the world to generate electricity using turbo generators.In 1894 he regained certain patent rights from Clarke Chapman. Although his first turbine was only 1.6% efficient and generated a mere 7.5 kilowatts, rapid incremental improvements in a few years led to his first megawatt turbine built in 1899 for a generating plant at Elberfeld, Germany.

Parsons came up with the idea of powering a ship by steam turbine, and in 1894 the Turbinia was tested to great success; it could travel at over 34 knots when the fastest warships of the day only managed speeds of 27 knots. Famously, Parsons decided to showcase his technology by gate-crashing the naval review of 1897, which was to honour Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, weaving in-between and outstripping the other warships in the harbour after the queen had inspected them.Following this marketing stunt he set up the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company. Two years later HMS Viper, a turbine-driven destroyer, was launched, followed by HMS Cobra. Then came the first turbine powered passenger ship, Clyde steamer TS King Edward (1901) and  the first turbine transatlantic liners RMS Victorian and Virginian (1905); by 1904, 26 ships powered by steam turbines were in operation. In 1906, HMS Dreadnought was completed, the first turbine-driven battleship and the fastest in the world.

In 1925 Charles Parsons acquired the Grubb Telescope Company and renamed it Grubb Parsons. That company survived in the Newcastle area until 1985.The Parsons turbine company survives and is now part of Siemens.Parsons was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in Jun 1898, he received their Rumford Medal in 1902 and their Copley Medal in 1928. He was knighted in 1911 and made a member of the Order of Merit in 1927. He died in 1931 while on a cruise with his wife in the West Indies, following an attack of neuritis. Parsons’ ancestral home at Birr Castle in Ireland houses a museum detailing the contribution the Parsons family have made to the fields of science and engineering, with part of the museum given over to marine engineering work of Charles Parsons.

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