Irish scientists, episode 3: Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine engine was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 26th November 2016
Charles Parsons is considered to be in the top five of Britain’s greatest engineers of all time, by virtue of his enormous contribution to sea travel, and the shipbuilding industry, and making electricity available to the masses.
Parsons’s huge impact on the world has been far less heralded in Ireland, his native land. Hew grew up and spent his early adult years at his family’s residence in Birr Castle Co. Offaly before moving to England.
The greatest achievement of his stellar engineering career was the invention of the steam turbine engine in 1884, an entirely new type of engine, which extracted thermal energy from pressurised steam in an ultra-efficient manner.
This thermal energy could be converted, through a series of intermediary steps, into electrical energy in such an efficient manner that, it became possible, for the first time, to generate enough electrical energy to make it available to the wide mass of people, not just the well-to-do elite.
Today, 90% of the electricity in the USA is still generated through steam turbine engines.
This engine also transformed the nature of sea travel, as steam turbines could provide the power necessary for large ships to cross the Atlantic far quicker, and for passengers to travel in comfort without rattling, shaking and noise.
The steam turbine was famously put into Parsons’s yacht, the Turbinia, and used to outpace the assembled British naval fleet at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead in 1897.
After this unsolicited, but powerful demonstration of the power that a steam turbine could provide, the British navy decided that it would commission the turbine to be used in its new generation of battleships, the Dreadnoughts (launched in 1906)
This helped to provide Britain with an edge in its naval arms race with Germany in the run up to World War 1.