Tuesday 20 February 2018

Spiral galaxies, steam-powered turbines and a Birr inventor

In the late 1800s, the steam-powered turbine was a hot ticket when it came to cutting-edge technology. Its inventor, Charles Parsons from the Offaly town of Birr, is remembered here by his grand, grand, grand niece and fellow engineer Lady Alicia Clements

Seat of innovation: Alicia Clements at Birr Castle and science centre. Photo: Chris Bellew
Seat of innovation: Alicia Clements at Birr Castle and science centre. Photo: Chris Bellew
Charles Parsons, who invented the steam turbine

My great, great, great uncle Charles Parsons is best known for his invention of the steam-powered turbine in 1884 which made cheap and plentiful electricity possible and revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare. This discovery eventually led to the design of today's jet engines.

As an engineer myself, someone who was nicknamed as a child 'Little Miss Don't Touch', I have to admit to being particularly proud of my engineering heritage. I am so fortunate to live in Birr, the historical heart of science in Ireland, which is the result of generations of one family with a passion for science and engineering. My family have lived here at Birr Castle since 1620.

Many will have heard of the Great Telescope designed and built by the third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons. Charles, his son, was the baby of the family. Born in 1854, he was only 13 when his father died, but I believe he had inherited some of the scientific genius of both his parents.

William Parsons married Mary Field, a Yorkshire heiress, and used her income to fund a variety of different scientific projects. The most famous of these is the incredible telescope which can be seen at Birr today and continues to influence Ireland's scientific world.

Charles Parsons, who invented the steam turbine
Charles Parsons, who invented the steam turbine

William used the telescope to discover the spiral nature of some of the galaxies, and from 1845-1914, anyone wishing to witness this phenomenon had to come to Birr. And they came, in their hundreds, from across Europe and beyond. This telescope remained the largest in the world for over 70 years.

Mary Field - who was an accomplished blacksmith among other skills - did remarkable pioneering work in photography. She experimented with various techniques and processes and in 1859 won the first medal awarded by the Photographic Society of Ireland. Her darkroom remains in the castle and is the world's oldest surviving model. She gave birth to 11 children, but only four survived into adulthood.

Charles was born in 1854 in London. Unlike most boys of his era, he was homeschooled and worked as an assistant to his father. He spent most of his childhood in the laboratory, workshops, forge and foundry built by his father.

He experienced tragedy as a young man of 15, when Mary Ward, a cousin of the family, was thrown from a steam-propelled car that he had constructed in the workshops at Birr. It is believed that Offaly holds the record for the world's first fatal traffic accident.

After the death of his cousin, Charles smashed the car out of sadness - but for that, Birr might have been the hub of early automobile industry, too. Shortly after that he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he spent two years reading mathematics, before proceeding to Cambridge in 1873, graduating in 1877 with a first-class honours degree.

Charles became a premium apprentice at William Armstrong's Elswick works in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he had his first professional experience of engineering. In 1884, he went on to invent the steam turbine, which revolutionised the propulsion of ships.

In 1893, along with five associates, Charles formed the Marine Steam Turbine Company. 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 diminutive Turbinia, which could achieve a top speed of 34 knots (64kph). Now all the inventors had to do was sell this new idea. And they needed investors.

North sea greyhound

In an audacious sales pitch, they turned up uninvited to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. As part of the naval review, some 165 of the finest ships in the queen's navy were assembled at Spithead, in the south of England. Among those present were the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), lords of the admiralty, as well as foreign dignitaries and ambassadors.

The Turbinia took off at high speed between the two lines of navy ships and steamed up and down in front of the crowd and princes, while easily evading a picket boat that tried to pursue her, almost swamping it with her wake.

So much faster than anything else on the water, the Turbinia effectively demonstrated the great potential of the new technology. The fastest navy ships using other technologies reached only 27 knots. The ship's extraordinary speed caused a sensation with the Turbinia being described as "Charles Parsons' winning North Sea greyhound".

Parsons had decisively proven the abilities of his turbine steam engine.

On November 21, 1899, the HMS Viper became the world's first turbine-driven destroyer. By 1904, 26 ships had been fitted with direct drive turbine engines designed and built by Parsons. The engine also became the standard for electric power generation on land. The Parsons turbine company survives in Newcastle and is now part of the giant German engineering group, Siemens.

Charles was married to Katherine and had two children. His son, also an engineer, was killed at a young age in World War I and his daughter Rachel, together with her mother, founded The Women's Engineering Society in the UK. Charles was knighted in 1911, but his knighthood took second place to his Order of Merit which he received for science, making him the first engineer ever to have been awarded this honour.

He died on February 11, 1931, while on a cruise in the West Indies. He was in his 77th year, having lived to see the fruit of his labours in the complete transformation of the methods of producing power from steam, both on land and sea.

The Central Bank of Ireland has just issued a €15 silver proof coin to commemorate Sir Charles Parsons. Birr Castle has a science centre where the Great Telescope, alongside other mementos from photography, science and engineering, can still be seen (see Birrcastle.com)

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