Thursday, November 9, 2017

Life and Times of Charles Algernon Parsons

If you were to ask the average person who was Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, you would probably get a blank stare. If you also asked what was his connection to the tragic liner Titanic, you might receive a more interested response. And if you asked a student of engineering, then hopefully you would be met with instant recognition.

Sir Charles A. Parsons, by William H. Orpen, 1922 (Science Museum)

Parsons was the inventor of the steam turbine that would totally revolutionise electricity generation in the world's power stations as well as marine propulsion. From 1899 onwards, steam turbines would be fitted into naval warships as well as many famous passenger liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and that most memorable of all, Titanic.

But it is the Turbinia that came to be uniquely associated with Parsons and its speed created a major sensation in 1897 during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Review at Spithead.

Parsons had trouble interesting investors in his new invention so in an audacious plan to show what his little vessel was capable of, he purposely "gatecrashed" the Review. Turbinia dashed out and raced past the line of some 165 ships. Another boat was sent out to catch her, but Turbinia easily outran the pursuer and it was almost swamped in her wake. The crowd, including Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was astonished. Parsons had decisively proved the abilities of his steam turbine engine. 

For any afficianado or keen student of engineering inventions, Turbinia itself can still be seen today at The Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Turbinia speeding through the review at Spithead

In this connection, I am delighted to announce that my cousin, Eddie Kirton, a committee member of the North East Coast Joint Branch of The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology and The Royal Institution of Marine Architects  - and who has extensive knowledge about Charles A. Parsons and Turbinia  - will be giving a talk entitled:

The Life and Times of Charles Algernon Parsons

and all interested parties are welcome to attend. (Further contact information here.)

Like many a strong-minded genius, before and since, Parsons' diffident personality meant he had great trouble with being a public figure and his family relationships were complex. 

As an example, Eddie has scoured all the known Parsons family and scientific archives to try and track even one adult image of his only son, Algernon, who was killed in World War I, but none has been found. It seems highly possible that all existing family photographs of him may have been destroyed by his sister Rachel in 1933 when she had the family home cleared of its contents after her mother's death.

Lady Katherine Parsons was a formidable woman in her own right, a suffragette and champion of women in engineering. Rachel, also a brilliant engineer, but profligate and unstable, had a tragic end, bludgeoned to death by a disgruntled stable-hand to whom she owed money. (She will be explored in greater detail in an upcoming post on my companion blog on women, The History Bucket.)

Eddie's talk will touch on these fascinating aspects of  Parsons' life as well and one doesn't have to be an engineer to enjoy learning about this extraordinary man to whom the world owes so much.

Ireland has just launched a 15 Euro coin celebrating Sir Charles A. Parsons.

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