Posts Tagged ‘Steam Turbine’

Charles Parsons – faster sea travel faster and electricity for the masses


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’ Turbinia yacht, pictured here, outpaced the assembled British navy at Spithead in 1897 with its steam powered turbine engine (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Great Scientists of Co Offaly

 Credit (

Co Offaly, highlighted on the map on the right, might commonly be associated with our former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, or great All-Ireland winning hurling and gaelic football teams, but it is not often associated with producing famous scientists.

Fact is, though, that this small midlands county, with a current population of just 76,806 (2011 Census) has produced at least three world class scientists: William and Charles Parsons and John Joly.

Today we’ll be talking to John Joyce, a retired scientist and tour guide at Birr Castle, the ancestral home of the Parsons family, about the lives and achievements of William and Charles Parsons, and to Patrick Wyse-Jackson, geologist, and curator of the TCD Geology Museum about the life of John Joly.


Interview with John Joyce & Patrick Wyse Jackson discussing famous Offaly scientists

First broadcast on 2.02.2012 on Dublin City FM 

The inventor of the steam turbine: Charles Parsons

Charles Parson’s yacht Turbinia, pictured here, was powered by his steam turbine. He dramatically demonstrated its speed at the British Navy Review before Queen Victoria in 1897 when it was easily the fastest vessel on view. The British naval establishment was impressed and soon adopted the turbine in its latest battleships (credit: Wiki)

A plentiful supply of cheap electricity, and much faster passenger steamships and military battleships. These were some of the things made possible by Charles Parsons, who grew up in Birr, and invented the steam turbine in 1887.

Charles was born in 1854 and came from a brilliant scientific lineage. His father was the famous astronomer, William Parsons, who had built the world’s largest telescope on the grounds of Birr Castle in the 1840s.

The steam turbine invented by Charles, hugely increased the power that could be harnessed from a steam engine. The invention made him a rich man, and it changed the world.

LISTEN:   Charles Parsons interview with  Birr Castle tour guide, and retired scientist, John Joyce

First broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM

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