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The drama of Turbinia

Christopher Leyland captains the experimental ship Turbinia in a trial off the Tyne
Christopher Leyland captains the experimental ship Turbinia in a trial off the Tyne.

The diminutive Turbinia – just 100ft (30m) long and 9ft (2.7m) in the beam – was the first vessel to be powered by Charles Parsons’s steam turbines. She caused a sensation in June 1897 by ‘gatecrashing’ the Royal Navy Review at Spithead, held to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria.

Taking virtually everyone by surprise, Turbinia raced along between the lines of the fleet, at times reaching a record-breaking speed of 34 knots. Christopher Leyland, the ship’s captain, later described the Spithead review as ‘almost too exciting’ and insisted that his antics at the helm amounted to much more than an attention-seeking stunt. ‘Turbinia was some 10 knots fasters than any other craft,’ he said. ‘People were not quick enough in giving us right of way, while some lost their heads completely.’

For Charles Parsons, the Turbinia drama marked his entry onto the world stage, as the designer of an entirely new form of marine propulsion, but there were some who disparaged the ‘brilliant but unauthorized’ exhibition orchestrated by Parsons and Leyland as ‘a deliberate disregard of authority’.

George Baden-Powell, one of Turbinia’s passengers, explained that the amazing runs made by the little ship between the lines had been requested by the Admiral of the Fleet, who wanted her to show off her prowess to, among others, Prince Henry of Prussia, the Kaiser’s brother, who was watching from a German man-of-war. ‘The exhibition of speed, so far from being unauthorized, was specially invited by the authorities,’ wrote Baden-Powell, who added that the most notable feature of travelling aboard Turbinia was ‘the entire absence of vibration’.

The diamond jubilee review was a matchless opportunity for the Royal Navy to display its formidable strength and, at a time of mounting rivalry between the Great Powers, there is little doubt that Parsons had received unofficial encouragement from the Admiralty to stage a demonstration of British supremacy. As it turned out, there were important military and commercial consequences of the incident. By the end of the following year, 1898, construction of the first turbine-driven destroyer, HMS Viper, was well advanced – with the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co. of Wallsend-on-Tyne as main contractor.Viper was soon joined by Cobra, another destroyer, which was already under construction but would now be equipped with turbines instead of reciprocating engines.

A new era in the naval arms race

The launch in 1906 of HMS Dreadnought – the first battleship to be fitted with steam turbines – opened a new era in the naval arms race, with Britain, Germany and the United States as the main players. Such was the superiority of the dreadnought and super-dreadnought class that, within a few years, it was recognized around the world that all pre-dreadnought battleships had been rendered obsolete. Before long, in another revolutionary development, steam turbines would be used to power record-breaking ocean liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and Titanic.

A montage shows the comparative sizes of Turbinia and Mauretania, both driven by steam turbines
A montage shows the comparative sizes of Turbinia and Mauretania, both driven by steam turbines.