“Piloting Turbinia during the Royal Naval Review at Spithead was almost too exciting. She was 10 knots fasters than any other craft.” Christopher Leyland

Charles Parsons

Charles Parsons
Charles Parsons

Charles Parsons (1854–1931) was the youngest son of William and Mary Rosse. He is regarded by aficionados as one of the greatest engineers ever, but his extreme diffidence meant that he was never a public personality. In the BBC2 series The Genius of Invention, Parsons featured alongside James Watt and Michael Faraday as one of the creators of the energy-generation system on which modern life depends. He was knighted in 1911, and in 1927 he became the first engineer to join the highly exclusive Order of Merit (an honour, limited to 24 living recipients, that is in the personal gift of the monarch).

After graduating in maths from St John’s College, Cambridge, Charles Parsons became a premium apprentice at Sir William Armstrong’s Elswick Works on the Tyne, where he had his first professional experience of engineering. In 1884, he went on to invent the steam turbine, which revolutionized the propulsion of ships. Steam turbines were fitted in the Dreadnoughts and other warships, as well as giant liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and Titanic – but Parsons is most closely associated with the diminuitive Turbinia, whose extraordinary speed caused a sensation at Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee review at Spithead in 1897. The steam turbine was later employed in the generation of electricity, and it is still in use today in most of the world’s power stations. A model of the turbine and other Parsons inventions feature prominently in the Energy Hall of London’s Science Museum.

The original works of C. A. Parsons & Co. at Heaton, east of Newcastle, are now owned by Siemens. Work on steam turbines still takes place there.