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ASK OCE — August 31, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 13


One of the most important inventions in the development of electrical power generation had its origins in a back-of-the envelope sketch: the Parsons steam turbine.

In the late nineteenth century, the burgeoning progress of Industrial Revolution was at a crossroads. The large amounts of power generation needed for progress to continue and expand had seemingly reached its limit. The steam engines of the day were so large and noisy that one power station in Manchester, England had to be shuttered because of objections to the noise.

A young Irish engineer, Charles Algernon Parsons, and some of his contemporaries realized the need to create of a rotating machine or turbine to convert the power of steam directly into electricity. In 1884, after becoming a junior partner in the firm Clarke, Chapman and Parsons, he built the first multi-stage reaction turbine. Parsons and his partners clearly recognized the fundamental role that a steam turbine would play in driving electrical generators. Since there were no such generators in existence at the time, Parsons had to design and build his own.

The first generation turbo-generators had an output of one to seventy-five kilowatts. A few years later in 1895, three one hundred kilowatt radial flow generators weighing four tons each were installed in Cambridge Power Station. These generators powered the first electric street lighting scheme in the city’s history.

At the same time he was developing land-based turbine generation systems, Parsons was also hard at work designing and testing marine steam turbines. He used a two-foot model boat as a prototype quickly scaling up to a full-size ship called the Turbinia in 1894. There are notable accounts of the ship crashing the party at the Diamond Jubilee Royal Fleet Inspection by Queen Victoria in 1897. Immediately after the royal review, the Turbinia appeared uninvited, steaming agile circles around the rest of the British warships at an estimated speed of 30 knots, making it by far the fastest ship on the water.

The Turbinia had a top a speed of thirty-four knots, while the fastest destroyer in the British Navy could only manage managed twenty-seven knots. Following his successful stunt at the Fleet Inspection, which got the undivided attention of the British Admiralty, Parsons founded the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in 1897. In 1899, the company launched the turbine-driven destroyer HMS Viper, capable of speeds of thirty knots.

In 1906, Parsons Marine produced the famous HMS Dreadnought, with a top speed of twenty-one knots. It was described as the ship that made all other ships obsolete.

Legend has it that Parsons sketched the original design for the reaction blades in his turbine on the back of an envelope. Described as one of the greatest British engineers of all time, Charles Parsons applied for and received three hundred patents in his career. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1898, knighted in 1911, and in 1927 became the first engineer to be admitted to the Order of Merit.

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