Parsons turbine story. Charles Parsons was not only an outstanding engineer but also an inventor who solved problems that had never before been addressed in history, such as cavitation. He was also a visionary in the development and practical application of technology.
His invention, the steam turbine, proved to be easily scalable. By the time of his death in 1931, the power of such turbines had increased 10,000 times compared to the first model.
Parsons ingeniously convinced the conservative and traditional Lords of the British Admiralty. He used a bold method to influence their decision, as they were initially not receptive to his factual arguments, which is the focus of this story.
Charles Parsons was the son of an earl and a well-known astronomer who engaged engineers as teachers for his son. After earning his degree in mathematics and mechanics from Cambridge, Charles worked on improving steam engines during his internship at W.G. Armstrong. After four years, he was convinced that the technology of James Watt – the traditional reciprocating steam engine – had reached its limits. To cut a long story short – in 1884, the then thirty-year-old Charles Parsons invented the steam turbine.
Technological Breakthrough of Parsons Turbine
The new technology also created new problems, which Parsons was the first in the world to study, such as the phenomenon of cavitation. He cleverly solved it in an experimental yacht named Turbinia. A group of investors convinced by Parsons’ technology hoped for large contracts from the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, they encountered, to put it mildly, minds that were not open. However, these were the minds of people who decided on fleet investments. A technological breakthrough or disruptive innovation undermines the foundations of existing technology. In this case, it was the reciprocating steam engines. If someone was financially invested in the old technology, it affected their objectivity in assessing the technological breakthrough. The old technology usually has well-entrenched lobbyists to prolong its life.
What to Do?
After launching the yacht Turbinia in August 1894, Parsons spent nearly three more years perfecting his design to circumvent the problem of cavitation. Cavitation not only destroyed the propeller, but it also reduced the speed of his boat. The experimental yacht consumed coal much faster than traditional reciprocating steam engines, but it allowed for higher speeds. The new technology-enabled significantly greater power from a unit mass of the power plant compared to even the latest generation of reciprocating steam engines with triple expansion. This allowed for a significant increase in vessel speed. The Turbinia rising above the water at speeds above 34 knots.
An obvious customer for Parsons’ new technology was the Royal Navy. Ship speed is one of the fundamental parameters for winning a battle. However, the older gentlemen were not easily convinced. Tradition has its charm – it seems safer than any novelty. The Lords of the Admiralty, informed by Parsons about the achievements of the Turbinia, were mostly unconvinced. Conservative in their approach, they did not want to risk spending public money on something that might have flaws. Some were favorable, but a majority among the Royal Navy’s decision-makers was needed.
Opportunity Thanks to Parsons Turbine
An opportunity to almost force a change in the views of the most resistant decision-makers arose during a major maritime event marking Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – the sixtieth year of her reign. On June 26, 1897, at Spithead anchorage, 165 ships, including the largest battleships of the time, were gathered for a ceremonial parade celebrating the Queen’s jubilee. The ships were arranged in four parallel lines, each line five miles long. The Queen herself, then nearly eighty years old, did not take personal part in the event due to health reasons; she was represented by the Prince of Wales – the heir to the throne, later King Edward VII.
Before the Eyes of the Entire World
The spectacle was watched by a huge audience gathered on both sides of the strait, along with the entire fleet command, all the most important politicians and officials of the great empire, along with guests and ambassadors, who were to see a show of strength. Journalists, photographers, and marine painters were also present.
The Gauntlet Thrown
As the great parade of ships began, in front of the assembled crowds, a small but very fast boat approached from the side at high speed. As you rightly guessed, it was the Turbinia, commanded by Parsons with Robert Bernard at the helm. Turbinia darted from one line of ships to another, creating large waves. Since Turbinia was not registered for the parade, the commanding officers quickly ordered the navy’s fastest ships – the torpedo boats – to chase away the intruder. This, however, was exactly what Charles Parsons expected, and he skillfully eluded the torpedo boats as he was significantly faster. The Turbinia, achieving over 34 knots for an extended period, played cat and mouse with the torpedo boats capable of reaching just 27 knots. Parsons did this with the silent consent of some Admiralty officials, who stated there was no other way to influence the remaining decision-makers.
Under Public Pressure
The Parsons turbine story. Parsons “stole the show” of the entire ceremony, as reported by national and foreign newspapers. Not surprisingly, the unconvinced Lords of the Admiralty, after the embarrassment they suffered, were convinced to order the first two experimental counter-torpedo boats (as destroyers were then called), and in 1906 the battleship Dreadnought, powered by Parsons’ turbines, was launched. It became the first of an entire class of ships later named Dreadnoughts, starting a new arms race at sea. The first large passenger ship powered by steam turbines was the Mauretania. Here in the photo, you can see a tiny unit against its background – the yacht Turbinia.
Finale Words about Parsons Turbine
The yacht Turbinia is now the main exhibit at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers has recognized this unit as one of the pivotal points in our history due to the first use of innovative technology. Charles Parsons was knighted in 1911 and received a medal for merit in 1927. His company producing marine turbines, Parsons Steam Marine Turbine, has survived to this day as part of the Siemens AG conglomerate. The inventor died in 1931, an extraordinary engineer, discoverer, and businessman. As you can see, he was able to turn the success of technology into market success, and he was ready for a bold but effective way to convince the Admiralty officials.
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