Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, Anglo-Irish engineer and scientist best known for his invention of the compound steam turbine, dies on February 11, 1931, on board the steamship Duchess of Richmond while on a cruise with his wife.
Parsons is born in London on June 13, 1854, the youngest among eleven children of the famous astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, of Parsonstown (now Birr), King’s County (now County Offaly) and Mary Parsons (née Field), a Yorkshire heiress. Only four sons survive to adulthood. He is strongly influenced by his father, who encourages him to use the workshops at the Birr Castle observatory, and he is tutored at home by some of the assistant astronomers before entering Trinity College Dublin in 1871. He transfers to St. John’s College, Cambridge, and upon graduation in 1877 as eleventh wrangler in a class of thirty-six studying mathematics, he takes the unusual step for the son of an earl, of becoming a premium apprentice at the Elswick Engine and Ordnance Works of Sir William George Armstrong at Newcastle upon Tyne. In the period following this he develops a unique high-speed steam engine, and a torpedo which is powered by a gas turbine. He joins Clarke Chapman at Gateshead as a partner in 1884. In a matter of months he files patents for the world’s first effective steam turbine. These embody many novelties, but the key feature is an electricity generator rated at 6 kW and designed to run, directly coupled, at the astonishing speed of 18,000 rpm.
Parsons is not satisfied that his partners’ efforts to promote turbine development are sufficiently aggressive, and in 1889 he leaves to establish his own company, C. A. Parsons & Company, at Heaton near Newcastle upon Tyne. The price of this impetuous action is the loss of access to his original patents. He quickly establishes alternative designs and by 1892 he has built a turbo-alternator with an output of 100 kW for the Cambridge Electricity Company. Exhausting to a condenser, it has a steam consumption comparable with the best steam engines. Even his 1884 patents envisage applying turbines to marine propulsion, but it is 1893 before he can embark on the design of a suitable demonstration boat of 40 tons. By using careful tests on models, he perfects the hull shape and predicts the power requirements. At this time he recovers his 1884 patents and even wins the very rare prize of an extension for five years, which is a measure of the perceived national importance of his invention.
A syndicate is formed to raise the capital necessary to build Parsons’s turbine-powered vessel Turbinia. At the Spithead Fleet Review in 1897 she speeds among the ships of the world’s navies at 34.5 knots. In 1905 the Royal Navy decides to adopt turbines for its future warships. This example is followed by navies worldwide, from the United States to Japan. Builders of mercantile vessels follow quickly and the turbines of the Cunard liner RMS Mauretania (1906), each developing 26,000 kW, are the largest in existence at the time. The Mauretania holds the Blue Riband for the speediest Atlantic crossing until 1929, a fact that keeps Parsons’s name before the public.
The firm of C. A. Parsons (1889), which builds turbines for use on land, is privately owned, but the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company (1897) is a public company. Parsons also earns income from over 300 patents through the Parsons Foreign Patents Co. (1899). He readily licenses others to use his patents but he avoides costly litigation, the ruin of many inventors.
Parsons inherits an interest in optical instruments from his father. In 1890 he develops a cost-effective method for manufacturing searchlight mirrors, using sheets of plate glass and an iron mold heated in a gas furnace. During World War I he supplies most of the national requirements. In 1921 he acquires the optical instrument manufacturers Ross Ltd. and the Derby Crown Glass Company, makers of optical quality glass. In 1925 the firm of Howard Grubb, which makes large optical telescopes, is rescued from insolvency by Parsons. He believes that it is of national importance to maintain the industrial capacity to make optical equipment. Not all of his projects are commercially profitable, as for example his acoustic amplifier, dubbed the “Auxetophone,” or his attempts at synthesising diamonds, which absorbs much time and effort. In the development of his many inventions, he displays great tenacity in the face of reverses and always employs a meticulously scientific approach.
The supply of power on a large scale is revolutionised by the steam turbine. During the twenty years following the building of his first turbogenerator, Parsons remains at the forefront of promoting, building, and selling ever larger and more efficient turbines. He is not only a scientific engineer and inventor, but also a successful manufacturer and businessman. Modest and retiring in manner, his chief weakness lay in a lack of skill in managing interpersonal relationships, though this is compensated to a large extent by his integrity and loyalty. He seeks out the ablest men to run his businesses, among them several Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS). He is elected FRS himself in 1898 and is knighted in 1911. In 1927 he becomes the first engineer to be awarded the Order of Merit for his outstanding contributions to society. He is honoured by many universities and institutions in Europe and the United States.
Parsons marries Katharine Bethell, a Yorkshire woman, in 1883. They have one daughter and a son who dies on active service in 1918. He keeps a residence in London and in Northumbria.
Parsons dies on February 11, 1931, on board the steamship Duchess of Richmond while on a cruise with his wife. The cause of death is given as neuritis. A memorial service is held at Westminster Abbey on March 3, 1931. He is buried in the parish church of St. Bartholomew’s in Kirkwhelpington in Northumberland. His estate is valued at £1,214,355 gross.
A portrait of Parsons, painted by Maurice Codner, hangs in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London. There is also a portrait by Sir William Orpen in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a portrait by Walter Stoneman in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
(From: “Parsons, Sir Charles Algernon” by W. Garrett Scaife, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, October 2009)