Sir Charles Parsons and the birth of the steam turbine

A pioneer of British marine engineering

Richard Maudsley tells the story of Turbinia and its creator

Sir Charles with the Prince of Wales during a royal visit to the works in 1923.

On Saturday 26 June 1897 over 160 ships from the British fleet were lined up off Spithead for the Review which formed part of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. They formed lines stretching 25 miles in total. The Queen was too frail to attend, her place being taken by the Prince of Wales. The Royal Yacht formed part of the reviewing flotilla, accompanying vessels carrying Lords of the Admiralty, members of both Houses of Parliament and foreign dignitaries.

Imagine the commotion when into this scene burst the white-painted steam yacht Turbinia, with its creator Charles Parsons aboard. This tiny craft (103 feet long, 9 feet wide and with a draught of only 3 feet) raced between the Navy lines using its three steam turbines to achieve the unheard-of speed of 34.5 knots. None of the naval vessels could catch it. This audacious adventure led, within a few years, to the Navy specifying turbine propulsion for its vessels, displacing reciprocating steam engines. This was soon followed by commercial ships, notably the Cunard liners Mauretania and Lusitania in 1907.

The inventor

So who was Charles Parsons, and how did he come to develop the steam turbine? Born in 1854, he was the youngest son of the third Earl of Rosse. He spent most of his boyhood at the family seat, Birr Castle, Parsonstown, Ireland. His father was a distinguished astronomer and mechanician (to use the contemporary term) who had designed and built the Great Reflecting Telescope, which remains at Birr to this day. Home education by tutors well versed in mathematics and astronomy preceded Charles’ studies at Trinity College Dublin then Cambridge University, where his interest in things nautical found a home in his college’s rowing eight.

After graduating from Cambridge, he became a premium apprentice at the Elswick works of W G Armstrong in Newcastle. Whilst at Elswick he developed his ideas for an ‘epicycloidal’ engine to produce rotary motion at high speed with no reciprocation. After four years there, he joined his brother, Clere, at Kitsons in Leeds, where they tried to develop rocket-propelled torpedoes (which they tested in Roundhay Lake, only to find they were ‘uncertain and unsafe’). While in Leeds Charles met and fell in love with Katherine Bethell, whom he married in 1883. A year later they moved back to Tyneside, this time for Charles to head the new electrical department at Clarke Chapman & Co., mechanical handling equipment manufacturers in Gateshead. Here he turned his mind to developing a steam turbine to drive a dynamo to generate electricity. He patented this important invention in 1884, having in mind that it could be used for electric lighting in ships.

Since his partners in Clarke Chapman were not inclined to fund the large-scale development of his turbine, Charles left Gateshead and in 1889 formed a new company, C A Parsons & Co., across the river at Heaton in Newcastle. Initially the business was hampered by Clarke Chapman retaining the turbine patents. Charles circumvented this by developing an alternative radial-flow design, but later won back his more efficient axial-flow patents. His first turbines discharged the spent steam to atmosphere, but he soon realised that the addition of a condenser would greatly improve efficiency, as it had done for James Watt. The first condensing turbo-generator was built in 1891.

Marine propulsion

The first condensing turbo-generator, built by Parsons in 1891.

Having started his business designing and making land-based turbines for the production of electricity, by late 1893 Charles started to apply his technology to marine propulsion. For this work he formed a second company, the Marine Steam Turbine Company. Turbinia was its first full-size experimental vessel. The first results, however, were not encouraging; the vessel could not even reach 20 knots. Extensive research led to the conclusion that cavitation, the formation of ‘vacuous cavities’ around the rapidly-turning propeller blades, was the problem. A new design of propeller, coupled with the installation of three turbines in a compound layout, each connected to a separate propeller shaft rather than the original single shaft, then enabled Turbinia to achieve speeds of over 30 knots.

The size of land-based turbine-generators increased rapidly from the 4 kW achieved in 1885. By 1900, capacity had reached 1,000 kW, with two machines being ordered by the then town of Elberfeld in Germany. The success of this project established Parsons’ reputation in Europe. Capacities continued to grow (from 3,500 kW in 1903, to 6,250 kW in 1908, to 25,000 kW in 1912, and finally to 50,000 kW in 1922), many units being exported around the world. Turbines were also manufactured for ventilating collieries, driving pumps and compressors and other industrial purposes.

Charles never lost his interest in telescopes, inherited from his father. Heaton Works initially manufactured a range of parabolic reflectors, then in 1925 the company purchased Grubb Telescopes, to become Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons & Co. The first large commission of Grubb-Parsons (as the company became known) was the 36-inch reflector for the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.

The achievements of Charles, ever the practical inventor, included the design of a large, loud, compressed-air gramophone, the Auxetophone, and the manufacture of artificial diamonds – perhaps the only area in which success really eluded him.

The man

Sir Charles Parsons OM, KCB, FRS.

What was Charles like as a person? Several colleagues commented on his ‘explosive Irish temper’, but he was much respected by his loyal employees and was often seen ‘getting his hands dirty’ in the factory or on board Turbinia. He was known for his immense powers of concentration, sometimes appearing almost absentminded. Despite his early training in mathematics, he appeared to make little use of mathematical calculation. He was described as an experimenter with an exceptional gift of intuition. His practical approach is exemplified by this story: in the early days of motoring, he had a small car that was too lightly built for some of Northumberland’s rural roads. One day in the moors far from any help, a shaft became badly bent. Charles dismantled it, lit a fire to serve as a forge, and straightened the damaged part using stones as both anvil and hammer before reassembling it and going on his way.

National and international recognition of Charles’ achievements included a knighthood in 1911 and admission to the Order of Merit in 1927 – the first engineer to have been recognised with this honour. Sir Charles died, aged 77, in 1931 whilst on a cruise to the West Indies, leaving a legacy of engineering excellence. His widow outlived him by just three years. Their son had been killed on active service in the First World War. Their daughter, one of the first women to study engineering at Cambridge, took a major role in the business during the war but found it difficult to be accepted when men returned to work afterwards. She did however become very active in the Women’s Engineering Society.

The legacy

So what has happened to these businesses since Sir Charles’ death? C A Parsons, following a merger with Reyrolle and incorporation into first Northern Engineering Industries then Rolls-Royce, was sold to Siemens in the late 1990s. In 1944, the research and development portion of the Marine Steam Turbine Company merged with others to form Pametrada (Parsons Marine Engineering Turbine Research and Development Association) which now exists as the BMT Group. Among other successes, both HMY Britannia and the QEII had Pametrada turbines.

Turbinia has had a varied and interesting life since its exploits at Spithead. In 1907 it was nearly cut in half when control was lost of a ship being launched from the Robert Stephenson yard at Wallsend on the Tyne. Turbinia was repaired, and in 1926, with no further use for it envisaged, it was offered to the Science Museum in London. The museum, however, had room for only half the vessel, so it was cut in half; the aft portion was shipped to London while the forward half was exhibited in Newcastle. In 1959, the aft section returned north and the vessel was made whole again. Following several years in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park, it was moved, in 1994, the centenary of its launch, to the city’s new science and engineering centre, the Discovery Museum, where it remains, splendidly displayed, to this day, inspiring future generations of engineers.


  1. Turbinia by Ken Smith (Tyne & Wear Museums 1996).
  2. Marine Propulsion Turbinia and Beyond (IMechE Conference Proceedings 1997).
  3. Charles Parsons obituary (Royal Society Proceedings 1931).

Richard Maudsley CBE FREng is an engineer. He was for some years Managing Director of NEI Parsons Ltd before serving on the board of Rolls-Royce plc.