Parsons, Charles Algernon 1854 - 1931

English; British

(1854-1931), Knight, engineer and scientist

Charles Algernon Parsons was born on the 13th June 1854 at 13 Connaught Place, Hyde Park, London. At the age of 17 Parsons went to Trinity College, Dublin for two years before studying applied mechanics and mathematics at St John's College, Cambridge. After graduating he trained as an engineer at the works of Sir William Armstrong & Co. at Elswick, Tyneside, as a four-year apprentice, and then worked for Kitson & Co. of Leeds (1881-3). Here he developed a four-cylinder high-speed epicycloidal steam engine that he had patented; this was one of more than 300 he took out in his lifetime.

In 1884 Parsons acquired a junior partnership in the firm Clarke, Chapman & Co. of Gateshead. Here, Parsons set about designing a high-speed generator and then developing a steam turbine to drive the dynamos directly. The first Parsons turbo-dynamo was constructed in 1884, developed an output of 7.5 kW when running at a speed of 18,000 revolutions per minute, and was an immediate success. Many such machines were constructed almost exclusively for ship lighting, and by 1888 about 200 were in service. Parsons dissolved his partnership and in 1889 founded the firm C. A. Parsons & Co. at Heaton near Newcastle. By 1905 Parsons had constructed turbo-alternators generating at 11,000 volts, and this voltage became the usual generating pressure for many years. In 1928 he produced a 25,000 kW turbo-alternator generating directly at 36,000 volts. The machine was entirely successful and Parsons had set a new standard in power station practice. Many of the most important power stations, both in Great Britain and abroad, adopted the practice of generating directly at 36,000 volts.

In 1894 Parsons formed a separate company, Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company, at Wallsend and in 1894-1897 'Turbinia' was fitted with a Parsons steam turbine and caused a sensation at the 1897 Spithead Naval Review. With successes in many other ships, in 1905 a committee on naval design appointed by the Admiralty, advised that in future turbine machinery should be used exclusively in all classes of warships.

Parsons took a keen interest in optics, he organised a special department for the production of searchlight reflectors. In January 1921 he acquired a controlling interest in the optical firm of Ross Ltd, of Clapham. Here he introduced various improvements in the methods of glass-grinding. The following July he purchased the Derby Crown Glass Company, and under the name of the Parsons Optical Glass Company produced about a hundred different kinds of glass for optical purposes. In 1925 he purchased the firm of Sir Howard Grubb & Sons, makers of large astronomical telescopes and under the name of Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons & Co. built new works for it at Walkergate. Many notable instruments were constructed there, including 36 inch reflecting telescopes for the Royal Greenwich Observatory and for the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, and two 74 inch reflectors, one for Toronto and the other for Pretoria. Parsons also invented an ‘auxetophone’, a loudspeaker for increasing the sound of stringed instruments.

Parsons was appointed CB in 1904 and KCB in 1911, and was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1927. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1898, and was vice-president in 1908 and Bakerian lecturer in 1918. He received the Rumford medal in 1902 and the Copley medal in 1928. From the Royal Society of Arts he received the Albert medal in 1911, and from the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Faraday medal (1923) and the Kelvin medal (1926). He was elected an honorary fellow of his college in 1904, and received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, Durham, Liverpool, and Sheffield. In 1911 he delivered the Rede lecture at Cambridge, and he was president of the British Association in 1919. The city of Newcastle upon Tyne made him a freeman in 1914. He died on 11 February 1931 on board the Duchess of Richmond at Kingston, Jamaica.