Charles Algernon Parsons

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Sir Charles Algernon Parsons
Charles Algernon Parsons.jpg
Born13 June 1854
Died11 February 1931 (1931-02-12) (aged 76)
Nationality Irish and British
Alma mater Trinity College, Dublin
St. John's College, Cambridge
Known for Steam turbine
Spouse(s)Katharine Bethell
(m. 1883) (d. 1933)
ChildrenRachel Mary Parsons (1885–1956)
Algernon George Parsons (b. 1886–1918)
Awards Rumford Medal (1902)
Albert Medal (1911)
Franklin Medal (1920)
Faraday Medal (1923)
Copley Medal (1928)
Bessemer Gold Medal (1929)
Scientific career
Fields Engineering
Institutions Heaton, Newcastle

Hon. Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, OM , KCB , FRS (13 June 1854 11 February 1931) was an Anglo-Irish engineer, best known for his invention of the compound steam turbine, [1] and as the namesake of C. A. Parsons and Company. He worked as an engineer on dynamo and turbine design, and power generation, with great influence on the naval and electrical engineering fields. He also developed optical equipment, for searchlights and telescopes.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the UK Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

Engineer Professional practitioner of engineering and its sub classes

Engineers, as practitioners of engineering, are professionals who invent, design, analyze, build, and test machines, systems, structures and materials to fulfill objectives and requirements while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin words ingeniare and ingenium ("cleverness"). The foundational qualifications of an engineer typically include a four-year bachelor's degree in an engineering discipline, or in some jurisdictions, a master's degree in an engineering discipline plus four to six years of peer-reviewed professional practice and passage of engineering board examinations.

Steam turbine type of turbine device which uses steam from a boiler to rotate the turbine blades

A steam turbine is a device that extracts thermal energy from pressurized steam and uses it to do mechanical work on a rotating output shaft. Its modern manifestation was invented by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884.



Parsons was born in London into an Anglo-Irish family, [2] [3] [4] youngest son of the famous astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. The family seat is Birr Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, and the town of Birr was called Parsonstown, after the family, from 1620 to 1899.

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse Anglo-Irish astronomer

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse HFRSE, was an Anglo-Irish astronomer who had several telescopes built. His 72-inch telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known as the "Leviathan of Parsonstown", was the world's largest telescope, in terms of aperture size, until the early 20th century. From April 1807 until February 1841, he was styled as Baron Oxmantown.

Birr Castle

Birr Castle is a large castle in the town of Birr in County Offaly, Ireland. It is the home of The 7th Earl of Rosse, and as such the residential areas of the castle are not open to the public, though the grounds and gardens of the demesne are publicly accessible.

County Offaly County in the Republic of Ireland

County Offaly is a county in Ireland. It is part of the Midlands Region and is also located in the province of Leinster. It is named after the ancient Kingdom of Uí Failghe and was formerly known as King's County. Offaly County Council is the local authority for the county. The county population was 77,961 at the 2016 census.

With his three brothers, Parsons was educated at home in Ireland by private tutors [5] (including John Purser), all of whom were well versed in the sciences and also acted as practical assistants to the Earl in his astronomical work. One of them later became, as Sir Robert Ball, Astronomer Royal for Ireland. Parsons then read mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin and St. John's College, Cambridge, graduating from the latter in 1877 with a first-class honours degree. [6] He joined the Newcastle-based engineering firm of W.G. Armstrong as an apprentice, an unusual step for the son of an earl; then moved to Kitsons in Leeds where he worked on rocket-powered torpedoes; and then

John Purser (mathematician) Irish mathematician

John Purser (1835–1903) was an Irish mathematician, who was professor at Queen's College, Belfast.

Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co Ltd was a major British manufacturing company of the early years of the 20th century. With headquarters in Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, Armstrong Whitworth built armaments, ships, locomotives, automobiles and aircraft.

Torpedo self-propelled underwater weapon

A modern torpedo is a self-propelled weapon with an explosive warhead, launched above or below the water surface, propelled underwater towards a target, and designed to detonate either on contact with its target or in proximity to it.

Steam turbine engine development

First compound steam turbine, built by Parsons in 1887 Parson's Compound Steam Turbine - 1887 - Project Gutenberg eText 17167.png
First compound steam turbine, built by Parsons in 1887
Parsons' first 1 MW turbogenerator built for the city of Elberfeld, Germany in 1899 produced single phase electricity at 4 kV 1900 Elberfeld 1MW Generator.jpg
Parsons' first 1 MW turbogenerator built for the city of Elberfeld, Germany in 1899 produced single phase electricity at 4 kV

In 1884 Parsons moved to Clarke, Chapman and Co., ship engine manufacturers near Newcastle, where he was head of their electrical equipment development. He developed a turbine engine there in 1884 and immediately utilized the new engine to drive an electrical generator, which he also designed. Parsons' steam turbine made cheap and plentiful electricity possible and revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare. [7]

Clarke Chapman

Clarke Chapman is a British engineering firm based in Gateshead, which was formerly listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Another type of steam turbine at the time, invented by Gustaf de Laval, was an impulse design that subjected the mechanism to huge centrifugal forces and so had limited output due to the weakness of the materials available. Parsons explained that his appreciation of the scaling issue led to his 1884 breakthrough on the compound steam turbine in his 1911 Rede Lecture:

Gustaf de Laval Swedish engineer

Karl Gustaf Patrik de Laval was a Swedish engineer and inventor who made important contributions to the design of steam turbines and dairy machinery.

The Sir Robert Rede's Lecturer is an annual appointment to give a public lecture, the Sir Robert Rede's Lecture at the University of Cambridge. It is named for Sir Robert Rede, who was Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in the sixteenth century.

"It seemed to me that moderate surface velocities and speeds of rotation were essential if the turbine motor was to receive general acceptance as a prime mover. I therefore decided to split up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series, so that the velocity of the steam nowhere should be great...I was also anxious to avoid the well-known cutting action on metal of steam at high velocity." [8]

Founding Parsons and Company

In 1889, he founded C. A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle to produce turbo generators to his design. [9] In the same year he set up the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company (DisCO). In 1890, DisCo opened Forth Banks Power Station, the first power station in the world to generate electricity using turbo generators. [10] In 1894 he regained certain patent rights from Clarke Chapman. Although his first turbine was only 1.6% efficient and generated a mere 7.5 kilowatts, rapid incremental improvements in a few years led to his first megawatt turbine built in 1899 for a generating plant at Elberfeld, Germany. [8]

First steam turbine-powered ship Turbinia: fastest in the world at that time Turbinia At Speed.jpg
First steam turbine-powered ship Turbinia : fastest in the world at that time
Dreadnought. Considered the first modern battleship: in 1906 it was fastest in the world due to Parsons' steam turbine HMS Dreadnought 1906 H63596.jpg
Dreadnought. Considered the first modern battleship: in 1906 it was fastest in the world due to Parsons' steam turbine

Marine steam turbine applications

Parsons was also interested in marine applications and founded the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in Newcastle. Famously, in June 1897, his turbine-powered yacht, Turbinia , was exhibited moving at speed at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review off Portsmouth, to demonstrate the great potential of the new technology. The Turbinia moved at 34 kn (63 km/h; 39 mph). The fastest Royal Navy ships using other technologies reached 27 kn (50 km/h; 31 mph). Part of the speed improvement was attributable to the slender hull of the Turbinia. [11]

Within two years, the destroyers HMS Viper and Cobra were launched with Parsons' turbines, soon followed by the first turbine powered passenger ship, Clyde steamer TS King Edward in 1901; the first turbine transatlantic liners RMS Victorian and Virginian in 1905, and the first turbine powered battleship, HMS Dreadnought in 1906, all of which were driven by Parsons' turbine engines. [9] Today, Turbinia is housed in a purpose-built gallery at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle. [12]

Honors received

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1898 and received their Rumford Medal in 1902, their Copley Medal in 1928 and delivered their Bakerian Lecture in 1918. [13] He was the president of the British Association for 1916–1919. [14] He was an Invited Speaker of the ICM in 1924 at Toronto. [15] He was knighted in 1911 and made a member of the Order of Merit in 1927. [16]

Surviving companies

The Parsons turbine company survives in the Heaton area of Newcastle and is now part of Siemens , a German conglomerate. Sometimes referred to as Siemens Parsons, the company recently completed a major redevelopment programme, reducing the size of its site by around three quarters and installing the latest manufacturing technology. In 1925 Charles Parsons acquired the Grubb Telescope Company and renamed it Grubb Parsons . That company survived in the Newcastle area until 1985.

Parsons was also known for inventing the Auxetophone, an early compressed air gramophone. [17]

Personal life and death

In 1883 Parsons married Katharine Bethell, the daughter of William F. Bethell. They had two children: Rachel Mary Parsons (b. 1885), and Algernon George Parsons (b. 1886), who was killed in action during World War I in 1918, aged 31. [18]

Charles Algernon Parsons died on 11 February 1931, on board the steamship Duchess of Richmond while on a cruise with his wife. The cause of death was given as neuritis. [19] A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 3 March 1931. Parsons was buried in the parish church of St Bartholomew's in Kirkwhelpington in Northumberland.

His widow, Katharine, died at her home in Ray Demesne, Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland in 1933. [20] Rachel Parsons died in 1956; stableman Denis James Pratt was convicted of her manslaughter. [21]

In 1919 Katharine and her daughter co-founded the Women's Engineering Society, which is still in existence today. [22]


Parsons' ancestral home at Birr Castle in Ireland houses a museum detailing the contribution the Parsons family have made to the fields of science and engineering, with part of the museum given over to the engineering work of Charles Parsons. [23]

Sir Charles Parsons is depicted on the reverse of an Irish silver 15 Euros silver Proof coin that was struck in 2017.

Selected works

Related Research Articles

Birr, County Offaly Town in Leinster, Ireland

Birr is a town in County Offaly, Ireland. Between 1620 and 1899 it was called Parsonstown, after the Parsons family who were local landowners and hereditary Earls of Rosse. The town lies within a parish of the same name in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Killaloe.

Earl of Rosse Irish Earl

Earl of Rosse is a title that has been created twice in the Peerage of Ireland; both times for the Parsons family.

Lawrence Parsons, 4th Earl of Rosse British astronomer

Lawrence Parsons, 4th Earl of Rosse, KP, FRS was a member of the Irish peerage and an amateur astronomer. His name is often given as Laurence Parsons.

Charles Parsons may refer to:

<i>Turbinia</i> The first ship with steam turbine.

Turbinia was the first steam turbine-powered steamship. Built as an experimental vessel in 1894, and easily the fastest ship in the world at that time, Turbinia was demonstrated dramatically at the Spithead Navy Review in 1897 and set the standard for the next generation of steamships, the majority of which would be turbine powered. The vessel is currently located at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne, North East England, while her original powerplant is located at the Science Museum in London.

Mary Ward (scientist) Anglo-Irish scientist and writer

Mary Ward was an Anglo-Irish naturalist, astronomer, microscopist, author, and artist. She was killed when she fell under the wheels of an experimental steam car built by her cousins. As the event occurred in 1869, she is the first person known to have been killed by a motor vehicle.

Leviathan of Parsonstown telescope

Leviathan of Parsonstown, or Rosse six-foot telescope, is a historic reflecting telescope of 72 in (1.8 m) aperture, which was the largest telescope in the world from 1845 until the construction of the 100-inch (2.5 m) Hooker Telescope in California in 1917. The Rosse six-foot telescope was built by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse on his estate, Birr Castle, at Parsonstown.

Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company was a British engineering company based in Wallsend, North East England, on the River Tyne.

The Rt Hon. William Clere Leonard Brendan Parsons, 7th Earl of Rosse, is an Irish peer. He is also 10th Baronet Parsons, of Birr Castle.

Michael Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse Irish Earl

Lawrence Michael Harvey Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse was an Irish peer. He was the son of William Edward Parsons, 5th Earl of Rosse, whom he succeeded in 1918, and Frances Lois Lister-Kaye, daughter of Sir Cecil Edmund Lister-Kaye, 4th Bt. and Lady Beatrice Adeline Pelham-Clinton.

Sir William Parsons, 4th Baronet of Birr Castle was an Irish politician and baronet.

C. A. Parsons and Company was a British engineering firm which was once one of the largest employers on Tyneside. The company became Reyrolle Parsons in 1968, merged with Clarke Chapman to form Northern Engineering Industries in 1977, became part of Rolls-Royce plc in 1989, and still survives today as a division of Siemens.

There have been four baronetcies created for persons with the surname Parsons, two in the Baronetage of Ireland, one in the Baronetage of England and one in the Baronetage of the United Kingdom. One creation is extant as of 2008.

Mary Rosse photographer

The Rt Hon. Mary Parsons, Countess of Rosse, was a British amateur astronomer and pioneering photographer. Often known simply as Mary Rosse, she was one of the early practitioners of making photographs from waxed-paper negatives.

The Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company was a pre-nationalisation, private electricity supply company, based in Newcastle upon Tyne in North East England. The company was set up in 1889 by Charles Algernon Parsons. The company built a number of small coal-fired power stations in the west end of Newcastle upon Tyne, initially to supply homes and streets with electric lighting. They also provided power for an electrified tram line in the western part of the city.

Lawrence Harman Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, known as the Lord Oxmantown between 1792 and 1795 and as the Viscount Oxmantown between 1795 and 1806, was an Irish peer and politician.

Rachel Mary Parsons British Engineer

Rachel Mary Parsons (1885–1956), engineer and advocate for women's employment rights, was the founding President of the Women's Engineering Society in Britain on 23 June 1919.


  1. "Sir Charles Algernon Parsons". Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  2. "Charles Parsons the Person". University of Limerick. ... was an Anglo-Irish engineer,
  3. Weightman, Gavin (2011). Children of Light. Atlantic Books. p. 112. ISBN   0857893009. Charles Algernon Parsons was from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy
  4. Invernizzi, Costante Mario (2013). Closed Power Cycles: Thermodynamic Fundamentals and Applications. Springer. pp. 1–. ISBN   978-1-4471-5140-1.
  5. The Earl of Rosse (Autumn 1968). "William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse" (PDF). Hermathena (107): 5–13. JSTOR   23040086 . Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  6. "Parsons, the Hon. Charles Algernon (PRSS873CA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  7. "Charles Parsons (1854 – 1931)". Profiles of Scientists from Irish Universities. Archived from the original on 10 January 2008. Retrieved 6 February 2005.
  8. 1 2 Smil, Vaclav (2005). Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN   0-19-516874-7.
  9. 1 2 "Chronology of Charles Parsons". Birr Castle Scientific and Heritage Foundation. Archived from the original on 25 December 2008. Retrieved 3 January 2009.
  10. Parsons, Robert Hodson (1939). "Ch. X". The Early Days of the Power Station Industry. Cambridge: University Press. p. 171.
  11. Robertson, Paul (n.d.). "Charles Algernon Parsons". Cambridge University  : 125 Years of Engineering Excellence. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  12. "Collections at Discovery Museum". Archived from the original on 28 July 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2013.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  13. "Lists of Royal Society Fellows 1660-2007". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 24 March 2010. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
  14. Parsons, Charles A. (1919). "President's Address". Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. London: John Murray.
  15. Parsons, C. A. "The steam turbine" (PDF). In: Proceedings of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Toronto, August 11–16. 1924. vol. 2. pp. 465–472.
  16. "Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931)". Archived from the original on 14 February 2012. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  17. Reiss, Eric (2007). The compleat talking machine: a collector's guide to antique phonographs. Chandler, Ariz: Sonoran Pub. p. 217. ISBN   1886606226.
  18. "Katherine Bethell". The Peerage. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  19. "Sir Charles Parsons and Sir Arthurt Dorman". Obituaries. The Times (45746). London. 13 February 1931. col B, p. 14.
  20. "Obituary The Hon. Lady Parsons". Heaton Works Journal. Women's Engineering Society. December 1933. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  21. "A history of General Motors in pictures". The Telegraph. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  22. Heald, Henrietta (23 May 2014). "What was a girl to do? Rachel Parsons (1885–1956): engineer and feminist campaigner". blue-stocking. Retrieved 6 January 2015. In January 1919, Rachel and her mother, Katharine, established the Women’s Engineering Society, with Rachel as the first president and Caroline Haslett, an electrical engineer, as secretary.
  23. "Science Centre at Birr Castle". n.d. Retrieved 26 May 2019.

Further reading