Charles Algernon Parsons
Born13 June 1854
Died11 February 1931 (1931-02-12) (aged 76)
CitizenshipBritish subject
Alma materTrinity College, Dublin
St. John's College, Cambridge
Known forSteam turbine
SpouseKatharine Parsons (née Bethell) (m. 1883) (d. 1933)
ChildrenRachel Mary Parsons (1885–1956)
Algernon George Parsons (b. 1886–1918)
AwardsRumford Medal (1902)
Albert Medal (1911)
Franklin Medal (1920)
Faraday Medal (1923)
Copley Medal (1928)
Bessemer Gold Medal (1929)
Scientific career
InstitutionsHeaton, Newcastle

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, OM, KCB, FRS (13 June 1854 – 11 February 1931) was a British engineer, best known for his invention of the compound steam turbine,[1] and as the eponym of C. A. Parsons and Company. He worked as an engineer on dynamo and turbine design, and power generation, with great influence on the naval and electrical engineering fields. He also developed optical equipment for searchlights and telescopes.

Career and commercial activity

Parsons was born into an Anglo-Irish family on 13 June 1854[2][3][4] in London as the youngest son of the famous astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. (The family seat is Birr Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, and the town of Birr was called Parsonstown, after the family, from 1620 to 1901.)[5]

With his three brothers, Parsons was educated at home in Ireland by private tutors[6] (including John Purser), all of whom were well versed in the sciences and also acted as practical assistants to the Earl in his astronomical work. (One of them later became, as Sir Robert Ball, Royal Astronomer of Ireland.) Parsons then read mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin and at St. John's College, Cambridge, graduating from the latter in 1877 with a first-class honours degree.[7] He joined the Newcastle-based engineering firm of W.G. Armstrong as an apprentice, an unusual step for the son of an earl. Later he moved to Kitsons in Leeds, where he worked on rocket-powered torpedoes.[8]

Steam turbine engine

First compound steam turbine, built by Parsons in 1887
Parsons' first 1 MW turbogenerator built for the city of Elberfeld, Germany in 1899 produced single-phase electricity at 4 kV

In 1884 Parsons moved to Clarke, Chapman and Co., ship-engine manufacturers operating near Newcastle, where he became head of their electrical-equipment development. He used Regnault's large collection of steam properties ("data of the physicists") to develop a turbine engine turning at 18,000 RPM[9][10] in 1884 and immediately utilised the new engine to drive an electrical generator, which he also designed. Parsons' steam turbine made cheap and plentiful electricity possible and revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare.[11]

Another type of steam turbine at the time, invented by Gustaf de Laval (1845–1913) in the 1880s, was an impulse design that subjected the mechanism to huge centrifugal forces and so had limited output due to the weakness of the materials available. Parsons explained in his 1911 Rede Lecture that his appreciation of the scaling issue led to his 1884 breakthrough on the compound steam turbine:

It seemed to me that moderate surface velocities and speeds of rotation were essential if the turbine motor was to receive general acceptance as a prime mover. I therefore decided to split up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series, so that the velocity of the steam nowhere should be great...I was also anxious to avoid the well-known cutting action on metal of steam at high velocity.[12]

Founding Parsons and Company

In 1889 he founded C. A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle to produce turbo generators to his design.[13] In the same year he set up the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company (DisCO). In 1890, DisCo opened Forth Banks Power Station, the first power station in the world to generate electricity using turbo generators.[14] In 1894 he regained certain patent rights from Clarke Chapman. Although his first turbine was only 1.6% efficient and generated a mere 7.5 kilowatts, rapid incremental improvements in a few years led to his first megawatt turbine, built in 1899 for a generating plant at Elberfeld in the German Empire.[12]

The first steam turbine-powered ship Turbinia: fastest in the world at that time
HMS Dreadnought. Considered the first modern battleship: in 1906 it was the fastest in the world due to Parsons' steam turbine

Marine steam turbine applications

Also interested in marine applications, Parsons founded the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in Newcastle. Famously, in June 1897, his turbine-powered yacht, Turbinia, turned up unannounced at the Navy Review for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria at Spithead, on 26 June 1897, in front of the Prince of Wales, foreign dignitaries, and Lords of the Admiralty. Moving at speed at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review off Portsmouth, to demonstrate the great potential of the new technology. The Turbinia moved at 34 kn (63 km/h; 39 mph); the fastest Royal Navy ships using other technologies reached 27 kn (50 km/h; 31 mph). Part of the speed improvement came from the slender hull of the Turbinia.[15]

Within two years the destroyers HMS Viper and Cobra were launched with Parsons' turbines, soon followed by the first turbine-powered passenger ship, Clyde steamer TS King Edward in 1901; the first turbine transatlantic liners RMS Victorian and Virginian in 1905; and the first turbine-powered battleship, HMS Dreadnought in 1906, all of them driven by Parsons' turbine engines.[13] (As of 2012 Turbinia is housed in a purpose-built gallery at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle.[16])

Honours and awards

Parsons was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1898, received their Rumford Medal in 1902 and their Copley Medal in 1928, and delivered their Bakerian Lecture in 1918.[17] He served as the president of the British Association from 1916 to 1919.[18] He was an Invited Speaker of the ICM in 1924 at Toronto.[19] Knighted in 1911, he became a member of the Order of Merit in 1927.[20] In 1929 the Iron and Steel Institute awarded him the Bessemer Gold Medal.[21]

Surviving companies

The Parsons turbine company survives in the Heaton area of Newcastle as part of Siemens, a German conglomerate.[22][23] In 1925 Charles Parsons acquired the Grubb Telescope Company and renamed it Grubb Parsons.[24] That company survived in the Newcastle area until 1985.[25]

Parsons also designed the Auxetophone, an early compressed-air gramophone.[26]

Personal life and death

In 1883, Parsons married Katharine Bethell, the daughter of William F. Bethell. They had two children: the engineer and campaigner Rachel Mary Parsons (b. 1885), and Algernon George "Tommy" Parsons (b. 1886), who was killed in action during World War I in 1918, aged 31.[27]

They had a London home at 1 Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, from 1918 to 1931.[28]

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons died on 11 February 1931, on board the steamship Duchess of Richmond while on a cruise with his wife. The cause of death was given as neuritis.[29] A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 3 March 1931.[30] Parsons was buried in the parish church of St Bartholomew's in Kirkwhelpington in Northumberland.[31]

His widow, Katharine, died at her home in Ray Demesne, Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland in 1933.[32] Rachel Parsons died in 1956; stableman Denis James Pratt was convicted of her manslaughter.[33]

In 1919, Katharine and her daughter Rachel co-founded the Women's Engineering Society with Eleanor Shelley-Rolls, Margaret, Lady Moir, Laura Annie Willson, Margaret Rowbotham and Janetta Mary Ornsby, which is still in existence today. Sir Charles was initially a supportive member of the organisation until his wife's resignation.[34][27]


Parsons' plaque in Birr Castle

Parsons' ancestral home at Birr Castle in Ireland houses a museum detailing the contribution the Parsons family have made to the fields of science and engineering, with part of the museum given over to the engineering work of Charles Parsons.[35]

Parsons is depicted on the reverse of an Irish silver 15 Euros silver Proof coin that was struck in 2017.[36]

The Irish Academy of Engineering awards The Parsons Medal, named after Charles Parsons, every year to an engineer who has made an exceptional contribution to the practice of engineering. Previous winners include Prof. Tony Fagan (2016), Dr. Edmond Harty (2017), Prof. Sir John McCanny (2018) and Michael McLaughlin (2019).[37]

Selected works


  1. ^ "Sir Charles Algernon Parsons". Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  2. ^ "Charles Parsons the Person". University of Limerick. Archived from the original on 11 September 2016. Retrieved 26 July 2015. ... was an English engineer,
  3. ^ Weightman, Gavin (2011). Children of Light. Atlantic Books. p. 112. ISBN 978-0857893000. Charles Algernon Parsons was from the English aristocracy
  4. ^ Invernizzi, Costante Mario (2013). Closed Power Cycles: Thermodynamic Fundamentals and Applications. Springer. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-1-4471-5140-1.
  5. ^ "Search: Parsonstown".
  6. ^ The Earl of Rosse (Autumn 1968). "William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse" (PDF). Hermathena (107): 5–13. JSTOR 23040086. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  7. ^ "Parsons, the Hon. Charles Algernon (PRSS873CA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  8. ^ "The Turbine Revolution". Key Military. 31 December 2020. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  9. ^ Hammack, Bill (8 November 2021). "Reclaiming Engineering in the Minds of the Public" (PDF).
  10. ^ Hammack, Bill (11 May 2023). "The Steam Turbine: The Surprising Relationship of Engineering & Science". YouTube.
  11. ^ "Charles Parsons (1854–1931)". Profiles of Scientists from Irish Universities. Archived from the original on 10 January 2008. Retrieved 6 February 2005.
  12. ^ a b Smil, Vaclav (2005). Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867–1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-19-516874-7. Transformer coltman 1988.
  13. ^ a b "Chronology of Charles Parsons". Birr Castle Scientific and Heritage Foundation. Archived from the original on 25 December 2008. Retrieved 3 January 2009.
  14. ^ Parsons, Robert Hodson (1939). "Ch. X". The Early Days of the Power Station Industry. Cambridge: University Press. p. 171.
  15. ^ Robertson, Paul (n.d.). "Charles Algernon Parsons". Cambridge University : 125 Years of Engineering Excellence. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  16. ^ "Collections at Discovery Museum". Archived from the original on 28 July 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2013.((cite web)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  17. ^ "Lists of Royal Society Fellows 1660–2007". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 24 March 2010. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
  18. ^ Parsons, Charles A. (1919). "President's Address". Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. London: John Murray.
  19. ^ Parsons, C. A. "The steam turbine" (PDF). In: Proceedings of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Toronto, August 11–16. 1924. Vol. 2. pp. 465–472. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 December 2017. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  20. ^ "Charles Algernon Parsons (1854–1931)". Archived from the original on 14 February 2012. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  21. ^ "Awards archive". IOM3. Retrieved 9 September 2020.
  22. ^ Warburton, Dan (20 April 2009). "Focus on the famous Parsons factory in Heaton". The Newcastle Chronicle. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  23. ^ "North East engineering company investing in future growth with move to 120,000sq ft CA Parsons Works site in Newcastle – NOF". NOF. 29 September 2020. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  24. ^ Henry C. King (2003) [1955]. The History of the Telescope (Dover ed.). Courier Corporation (published 1979). p. 387. ISBN 9780486432656.
  25. ^ Ian Ridpath (27 June 1985). "A view of the stars from a place in the sun". The Guardian. p. 13. Retrieved 13 June 2022 – via
  26. ^ Reiss, Eric (2007). The compleat talking machine: a collector's guide to antique phonographs. Chandler, Ariz: Sonoran Pub. p. 217. ISBN 978-1886606227.
  27. ^ a b Heald, Henrietta (2019). Magnificent women and their revolutionary machines. London. ISBN 978-1-78352-660-4. OCLC 1080083743.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  28. ^ "Upper Brook Street: North Side Pages 200-210 Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1980". British History Online. Retrieved 12 July 2020.
  29. ^ "Sir Charles Parsons and Sir Arthurt Dorman". Obituaries. The Times. No. 45746. London. 13 February 1931. col B, p. 14.
  30. ^ 'The Abbey Scientists' Hall, A.R. p48: London; Roger & Robert Nicholson; 1966
  31. ^ "Bid to restore Parsons' graves at Kirkwhelpington". Hexham Courant. 13 February 2018. Retrieved 27 February 2021.
  32. ^ "Obituary The Hon. Lady Parsons". Heaton Works Journal. Women's Engineering Society. December 1933. Archived from the original on 6 January 2015. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  33. ^ "A history of General Motors in pictures". The Telegraph. June 2009. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  34. ^ Heald, Henrietta (23 May 2014). "What was a girl to do? Rachel Parsons (1885–1956): engineer and feminist campaigner". blue-stocking. Retrieved 6 January 2015. In January 1919, Rachel and her mother, Katharine, established the Women's Engineering Society, with Rachel as the first president and Caroline Haslett, an electrical engineer, as secretary.
  35. ^ "Science Centre at Birr Castle". n.d. Retrieved 26 May 2019.
  36. ^ "Launch of new €15 silver proof coin to commemorate life and work of Sir Charles Algernon Parsons". Archived from the original on 25 October 2017.
  37. ^ McCarron, Fiona. "Parsons Medal Award 2020 – iae". Retrieved 27 April 2020.

Further reading