Charles Algernon Parsons

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Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, K.C.B., F.R.S. (13 June, 1854 – 11 February, 1931) was a leading British engineer and inventor.

Life & Career

Parsons was born at 13 Connaught Place, Hyde Park, London, on 13 June 1854, the youngest of the six sons of William Parsons, third earl of Rosse (1800–1867), and his wife, Mary Parsons, countess of Rosse (1813–1885), photographer, elder daughter of John Wilmer Field, of Heaton Hall, Yorkshire. His eldest brother was Laurence Parsons, later fourth earl of Rosse. William Parsons provided a stimulating environment for his sons at Birr Castle, Parsonstown, Ireland; he engaged tutors of high scientific calibre, and encouraged the boys into his workshops and observatory, where Charles developed a taste for mechanics. This mechanical aptitude had one unfortunate outcome; conveying friends on their home-made steam car at 7 m.p.h. one day, with Charles as stoker, the boys' cousin Lady Bangor fell from the vehicle and was killed. Before William Parsons's death the family cruised each year on their yacht Titania; afterwards they took a summer vacation in the alpine region.

At the age of seventeen Parsons entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he spent two years before proceeding to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1873. There was then no engineering school at Cambridge, but Parsons attended lectures on mechanism and applied mechanics, and he studied mathematics with such effect that in 1877 he graduated as eleventh wrangler. He later recalled, of these five years of pure and applied mathematics, ‘that the strain was more severe than anything in business life, and luckily for me, boat racing interfered with reading’ (Clarke).

Parsons at once began his engineering training by a four-year apprenticeship at the works of Sir William Armstrong & Co. at Elswick, Tyneside. This was followed by two years (1881–3) with Kitson & Co. of Leeds, where he developed a four-cylinder high-speed epicycloidal steam engine that he had patented, and he also occupied himself with experiments on the propulsion of torpedoes by means of rockets. In 1883 he married Katherine (d. 1933), the daughter of William Froggatt Bethell of Rise Park, East Riding of Yorkshire. They had a son and a daughter.

In 1884 Parsons acquired a junior partnership in the firm of Clarke, Chapman & Co. of Gateshead, and assumed charge of their newly organized electrical department. In those days electric dynamos were small machines driven usually at 1000 to 1500 revolutions per minute by a belt from the flywheel of a reciprocating engine. Parsons set about designing a high-speed generator and then developing a steam turbine to drive the dynamos directly. It occurred to him that, by dividing the expansion of steam into a number of pressure drops, it should be possible to run a turbine at a moderate speed and at the same time secure a proper relationship between the steam speed and blade speed. His first patents, taken out in 1884, show how thoroughly he considered all the difficulties in the path for the construction of such a high-speed turbine and the steps which he proposed to take to overcome them. The principle of subdividing the whole expansion of the steam into a number of stages, so that only comparatively moderate velocities have to be dealt with, still forms the basis of all efficient turbine design. The first Parsons turbo-dynamo, constructed in 1884, developed an output of 7.5 kW when running at a speed of 18,000 revolutions per minute, and was an immediate success. Many such machines were constructed almost exclusively for ship lighting, and by 1888 about 200 were in service.

Realizing the possibilities of the new type of prime mover, and in order to develop it to its fullest extent, Parsons dissolved his partnership and in 1889 founded the firm of C. A. Parsons & Co. He bought back his patent rights, and established a small works at Heaton on a site about 2 miles from the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne. The first power station in the world to employ turbo-generating plant was the Forth Banks power station at Newcastle. This station went into commission in January 1890 with an initial equipment of two 75 kW Parsons turbo-alternators. Other public lighting companies quickly followed this lead, and turbo-alternators were installed at Cambridge and Scarborough. The Cambridge station went into commission in 1892 with three 100 kW units. These machines were the first turbine units to be operated with condensers, and tests showed their efficiency to be comparable with that of the best reciprocating engines of equal power.

As the size of turbo-alternators for power station work gradually increased, so the efficiency of the sets was improved. Parsons lived to see an output of more than 200,000 kW delivered by a single turbo-generator and the reciprocating steam engine completely superseded by the turbine for central station work.

The growth of electricity supply consequent upon the invention of the turbine created a demand not only for larger generating units but also for higher transmission voltages, in order that more extensive areas might be economically served. In the early days the practice had been to generate at about 2000 volts, and to increase the pressure when required by transformers. By 1905 Parsons had constructed turbo-alternators generating at 11,000 volts, and this voltage became the usual generating pressure for many years. In 1928 he again attacked the problem of generating at higher voltages and produced a 25,000 kW turbo-alternator generating directly at 36,000 volts. The machine was entirely successful and Parsons had set a new standard in power station practice. Many of the most important power stations, both in Great Britain and abroad, adopted the practice of generating directly at 36,000 volts, thereby eliminating the large and costly step-up transformers necessary with the previous method.

Parsons's patent of 1884 had referred to steam-turbine propulsion of ships, but it was not until 1894 that he decided to attack this problem. He established a separate organization with works at Wallsend, and formed a separate company, which was later known as the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company. A small vessel, the Turbinia, with a length of 100 feet and a displacement of 44 tons, was constructed and fitted with turbine machinery, and after much experimental work attained a speed of 34 knots. At the naval review held in 1897 to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, the Turbinia created a sensation by racing down the lines of warships at a speed greater than that of any other vessel afloat, as at that time the fastest destroyers could hardly exceed 27 knots. In 1899 the Admiralty entrusted Parsons with the construction of a 30 knot turbine-driven destroyer, the Viper, which attained a measured speed of over 37 knots. A second destroyer, the Cobra, was also fitted with turbine machinery, but shortly afterwards both these ships were lost at sea by accidents.

In 1901 the first turbine-driven passenger vessel, the King Edward, was built for service on the River Clyde, followed by the sister ship Queen Alexandra, and within the next year or two the cross-channel boats Queen and Brighton were fitted with turbines. The Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company, in order to demonstrate to the Admiralty once more the advantages of turbines for warships, laid down in 1901 another turbine-driven destroyer, which was acquired in 1903 by the fleet under the name of Velox. This was followed in 1902 by the first turbine-driven cruiser, the Amethyst, which was one of four cruisers then under construction. The performance of the Amethyst was so remarkable that the last prejudices against turbine machinery in the Royal Navy were overcome, and the way was open for its general adoption. In 1905 a committee on naval design appointed by the Admiralty advised that in future turbine machinery should be used exclusively in all classes of warships; the dreadnoughts were the first class of battleship to be affected by this decision. The Cunard Company was first among the merchant fleets to install turbines, in 1905 in the 30,000 ton liner Carmania. The Lusitania and Mauretania followed in 1906, the latter vessel holding the ‘Blue Riband of the Atlantic’ for nearly a quarter of a century.

There remained yet to be met the demand of the immense fleets of low-speed tramp steamers and cargo vessels. Parsons realized that the only satisfactory solution was the introduction of mechanical reduction gearing between the turbine and the propeller shaft, thus enabling each vessel to run at its most efficient speed. In order to test this he bought in 1909 an old cargo vessel, the Vespasian, and replaced the 750 hp triple expansion engines by geared turbines; after exhaustive tests the new machinery was proved to be entirely successful. This was another great advance, for not only did it diminish the size of the machinery and increase its efficiency, but it enabled the ordinary cargo vessel to profit equally by the employment of turbines.

Lastly, after the First World War the competition of the marine oil engine had to be met. Parsons felt very strongly that marine engineers ought to take advantage of the economies in fuel resulting from the use of higher pressures and temperatures as obtained in installations on land. Knowing that a practical demonstration was the surest and quickest way to convince the sceptics, he accordingly equipped a small passenger vessel, the King George V, with high-pressure geared turbines. This vessel was the pioneer of high-pressure steam at sea, and thereby opened up a new field for marine engineers.

Parsons took a keen interest in all matters connected with optics, and when he established the Heaton works in 1889 he organized a special department for the production of searchlight reflectors. He built up what was probably the most important business devoted to the manufacture of such reflectors. In January 1921 he acquired a controlling interest in the optical firm of Ross Ltd, of Clapham. Here he introduced various improvements in the methods of glass-grinding, but soon turned his attention to the much larger question of the manufacture of optical glass itself. The following July he purchased the Derby Crown Glass Company, and under the name of the Parsons Optical Glass Company produced about a hundred different kinds of glass for optical purposes. Parsons made many scientific and mechanical improvements in the processes employed in the manufacture of the glass. In 1925 he purchased the firm of Sir Howard Grubb & Sons, makers of large astronomical telescopes, and under the name of Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons & Co. built new works for it at Walkergate, adjacent to his turbine works at Heaton. Many notable instruments were constructed there, including 36 inch reflecting telescopes for the Royal Greenwich Observatory and for the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, and two 74 inch reflectors, one for Toronto and the other for Pretoria.

Parsons also invented an ‘auxetophone’, a loudspeaker for increasing the sound of stringed instruments, particularly of the double bass. This was used at the Queen's Hall in 1906, and was generously supported by Henry Wood, but was otherwise not accepted by the musical profession. Of Parsons's many inventions and experiments, an attempt to make diamonds was the only one in which he failed to achieve his aim.

Parsons was appointed CB in 1904 and KCB in 1911, and was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1927. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1898, and was vice-president in 1908 and Bakerian lecturer in 1918. He received the Rumford medal in 1902 and the Copley medal in 1928. From the Royal Society of Arts he received the Albert medal in 1911, and from the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Faraday medal (1923) and the Kelvin medal (1926). He was elected an honorary fellow of his college in 1904, and received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, Durham, Liverpool, and Sheffield. In 1911 he delivered the Rede lecture at Cambridge, and he was president of the British Association in 1919. The city of Newcastle upon Tyne made him a freeman in 1914. He died on 11 February 1931 on board the Duchess of Richmond at Kingston, Jamaica.

Parsons is considered to be the most original engineer whom this country has produced since the days of James Watt. He lived to see the fruit of his labours in the complete transformation of the method of producing power from steam, on both land and sea. He took out more than 300 patents. Outside his work, he was an enthusiastic fisherman; in society, he was shy and retiring.

Wealth at death; £810,395 8s. 9d.: Probate; 2 May, 1931.

See Also