Charles Parsons Biography (1854-1931)


Charles Algernon Parsons was born into a wealthy and talented family. His father, the third Earl of Rosse, was president of the Royal Society and a distinguished astronomer, and his mother was a pioneer photographer. Privately tutored, Parsons spent much of his time as a child in his father's workshop, listening to the many scientists who frequented his parents' home, Birr Castle, Ireland. At the age of twelve, he constructed, with the aid of his brothers, asteam carriage that could travel at speeds of up to ten miles an hour (16 kph).

After enrolling at Trinity College, Dublin, Parsons transferred to Cambridge,where he earned a degree in mathematics. In 1884 he went to work for Clarke,Chapman, and Company, manufacturers who specialized in building electric dynamos. Like all dynamos of the time, these machines were driven by a belt connected to the flywheel of a steam engine. Realizing that a significant amountof energy was being lost between the engine and the dynamo, Parsons set aboutdesigning a machine that would directly use the steam's energy.

Later that same year Parsons produced the first steam turbine. Like a waterwheel or a windmill, Parson's machine operated on the turbine principle that mechanical energy can be derived from the movement of a fluid or gas. It consisted of a rotor in which several vaned wheels were attached to a shaft. Steamentered and expanded, causing the shaft wheels to rotate. Other stationary blades forced the steam against those that rotated, thus making use of as muchenergy as possible. The steam then continued until it encountered another setof turbine blades designed to work with the same steam at a slightly lower pressure. Because the steam expanded as it continued on its way through the turbine, Parsons made the second set of blades larger and the exhaust end widerthan the intake end.

Parsons saw the advantage of his device immediately. His turbine achieved a speed of 18,000 revolutions per minute, compared to a previous maximum of 1,500 rpm. Parsons left Clark, Chapman, and Company in 1889 to form his own company. When, one year later, two of his devices were installed at a power station in Newcastle, England, it became the world's first station of its kind. Turbines later became the most widely used method of providing electricity for large-scale processes.

Parsons also wanted to apply this technology to marine uses. He built the Turbinia, a 100-foot (30 m) vessel capable of speeds near 20 knots (37 kph). He redesigned the propulsion system until he had three shafts, each withthree propellers. In 1887 he put on a public demonstration of the vessel at anaval review for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Spectators were amazed asthe Turbinia sped along at 34 knots (63 kph), seven knots faster than any other ship then in existence. Parsons soon saw his steam turbine used for all sorts of commercial and military ships, because it provided high speeds with less vibration than the traditional reciprocating steam engines. Engines with a capacity of 70,000 horsepower provided the propulsion for some famous ships, including the Mauretania and the Lusitania.

Parsons was also successful in other engineering endeavors. He worked on searchlights and optical instruments, founding companies that specialized in producing lenses for scientific instruments. However, he will continue to be bestknown for developing the most convenient, useful, and efficient means of converting power into motion--the steam turbine.

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