Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931)

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons was an English engineer, most remembered for his invention of the steam turbine and contributions to marine engineering.

Parsons was born in 1854 in the area of Hyde Park, London, the sixth and youngest son of the astronomer and engineer William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse and President of the Royal Society. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and then graduated from St John’s College, Cambridge in 1877 with a first-class mathematics degree.

Unusually for the son of an earl, he next became an apprentice at the engineering firm of W H Armstrong in Newcastle, where he was permitted to develop a steam engine at his own cost. He then joined Kitson’s in Yorkshire, working on torpedoes, followed by a position as head of the electrical equipment department with a ship engine manufacturer in Newcastle.

It was there in 1884 that Parsons developed a turbine engine and electrical generator that were able to produce a good supply of electricity cheaply and which revolutionised naval transport and 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.

In 1889 he founded two of his own companies in Newcastle, one of which was C A Parsons and Co., which would manufacture his design of turbo-generators.

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 publicity 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; 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.

Parsons was knighted in 1911 and admitted to the Order of Merit in 1927. He also received the Rumford Medal in 1902 and the Copley Medal in 1928. He died in 1931 while on a cruise with his wife in the West Indies, following an attack of neuritis. His memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey, and he is remembered as one of England’s greatest engineers.