Essay: Charles Algernon Parsons

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  • Charles Algernon Parsons
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Engineering is the capacity to apply scientific knowledge in a more practical way in order to produce new utilities. These results are obtained if there is someone responsible to study problems, plan solutions, verify economic and technical viability so that theses productions or developments can be coordinated, this person is called engineer.

A big number of facilities and development of structures, materials, machines or systems would not exist without the arduous work, creativity and brilliant minds of engineers, who have been revolutionising the world.

Therefore, this essay contains data concerned the life of a spectacular British engineer, Charles Algernon Parsons, his achievements, ethical issues and the impact of his inventions on the environment.

Early Life

Born in the area of Hyde Park, London, on June 13, 1854, Charles Algernon Parsons was the youngest son of the legendary engineer and astronomer William Parson and Mary Parsons, and brother of Laurence Parsons, William Wilmer Parsons, John Parsons, Randall Parsons, and Richard Clare Parsons. (Scaife, 2000)

Appleyard (1933) states that as Charles’ father had an observatory at Birr Castle, Parsons town (now called Birr), in King’s County, Ireland (Offalay, Eire), were some eminent scholars were working. Thus, Charles and his brothers were firstly tutored by them. Following that he studied at Trinity College, in Dublin, for two years, and the he proceeded to Cambridge, in 1873, where he finished with distinction in Mathematics, in 1877. (Steam Turbine and other inventions of Sir Charles Parsons).

Charles Parsons was a man with a really inspiring story and an example of humility. According to Science Museum, even though he was son of an earl, he achieved his success by his own efforts and also his first work experience was as an apprentice in an engineering firm of Sir William Armstrong in Newcastle, for four years, where he started to develop his genial capacities which had as a result his astonishing creations.

After working for different firms, in 1889, he established his own company at Newcastle. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Remarkable Inventions

Parsons’ dedication and hard work allowed him to become a great engineer and it is clearly seen in his inventions and achievements which are admired until nowadays. His brilliant mind and capacity to create was sufficient to make real what was supposedly seen as a possibility (History of Engineering, 1925). After many tentative made without achieving the desired result, Charles Parsons surprised all entities who tried to perform steam power with his superb invention: Steam Turbine, according to Steam Turbine and other inventions of Sir Charles Parsons.

This brilliant creation of Parsons, made in 1884, at the time he was a junior partaker, responsible for an electrical department in the firm Clarcke, Chapman and Co., still be todays’ major source of electricity (a range of 80% of the world’s electricity) (Electropaedia). This company was specialized in building electric dynamos. Thus, as there was loss of energy between engine and the dynamo he decided to build a machine which would use the steam power directly. (How Products are made)

Parsons (1942) claims that Charles’ machine did not differ from a waterwheel or a windmill as it follows the principle that the energy was derived by the movement of a fluid or gas. In addition, there were some implementations to enhance the functionality of the turbine and then an incredible output was achieved, a speed of 18,000 revolutions per minute, which was very higher comparing to the previous one (1,500 rpm).

Parsons did not stop there, he continued with his works until the creation of the ” SS Turbinia ” which consisted in the implementation of his fantastic invention on a ship. Even without a training in naval architecture, Parsons manage to develop another fantastic and useful turbine which at the first trial, a single turbine sped near 20 knobs (37kph), not satisfied, he redesigned the propulsion system, this time he used three shafts accompanied by three propellers. Following that, he put it on a public demonstration of the vessel at a naval review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and one more time he surprised the people who were watching as his redesigned turbine sped along 34 knots (63kph) which was very faster comparing to other ships of that time. (How Products Are Made).

Parsons always seemed to be precocious from a young age and his father often encouraged him to develop his practical skills in order to have the facility to innovate (Bhattacharyya 2012). According to Crawford (2012), as he followed his father’s admonishment most of Parson’s free time was spent on the development of his fantastic new ideas.
Even though, he is best known for the invention aforementioned, Parsons worked in many other projects. Bhattacharyya (2012) states that his other inventions include a powered model helicopter; a monoplane and a three-wheeled go-cart. In addition, he worked on screw propellers, designed search light reflector, which led to his interest to work on optics, thus he designed optical instruments and developed methods for the production of optical glasses. He also invented the Auxetophone that was a device for the amplification of musical and vocal sounds without any tone-distortion. (The Steam Turbine and Other Inventions of Sir Charles Parsons)

Ethical Issues and Environmental Impact

Parsons (1942) claims that Charles was a modest, kind and humble person. He was always able to listen to others and discuss matters concerning to equality, as he never thought of himself as better or higher than anyone, even after achieving his success and fame. However, he was also capable of an unexpected abrupt explosion of impatience with anything that seemed incorrect for him. Moreover, Parson’s originality, was one of the most admired qualities by the ones who followed and follow his work and story. According to Gibb (2008), a part from his professional life, he used to be also described as an enthusiastic fisherman, even though, he was shy and retiring.

Among all creations of Sir Charles Parsons, Steam Turbine is definitely the one which is more talked about. Bhattacharyya (2012) states that there was a difficulty in the production of large amounts of power, when Parsons was working at Clarke Chapman and Company, also the engines used at that time were contributing to the increase of noise pollution. Nevertheless, Parsons brilliantly found the solution to this problem with the creation of a rotating machine or turbine to directly transform steam’s energy into electricity (Steam Turbine). Thus, it can be concluded that in his best known invention, Parsons impacted positively the environment as it not only helped in the production of electricity but also minimized the problems this pollution were causing.

Achievements and Death

Parsons’ achievements were seen not only in his inventions or creations, but also in his personal accomplishment referring to the family he formed.
Therefore, it is crucial to mention that his marriage with Katherine, a Yorkshire woman, was a very important stage of his life as they lately had two children, Algernon George Parsons and Rachel Mary Parsons. (Appleyard, 1933).

Turning to the other side of his achievements, it can be said that a good worker is often rewarded and it would not be different for a spectacular engineer as Charles Parsons, which was awarded for his excellence many times. Bhattacharyya (2012) states that he was multitasking and an experimentalist as he held more than 300 patents.
His contribution to the science, resulted on his acknowledgment when he was elected to the Royal Society in 1898, knighted in 1911 and admitted to the Order of Merit in 1927. (Crawford, 2012).
According to Appleyard (1933) and Gibb (2008) he was also awarded with the following medals:

• Rumford Medal (1902)
• Albert Medal (1911)
• Franklin Medal (1920)
• Faraday Medal (1923)
• Kelvin Medal (1926).
• Copley Medal (1928)
• A Gold Medal in 1929, by winning he won the Bessemer

Unfortunately, an attack of neuritis was the cause of Parson’s death in 1931, while he was on a cruise with Katherine, in the West Indies. However, he still be remembered as a very important engineer, not only in the UK but throughout the world. (Science Museum)


To conclude, Charles Parsons was a great engineer. His inventions, his story of life and his awards are all a proof of this. In an engineer life many situations may be faced, but only who dedicates himself to overcome those situations are acknowledge as Charles Parsons. He showed versatility, capacity and creativity, as his best known invention is very important nowadays, even after 132 years from its creation.

“He contributed freely of his knowledge to the proceedings of scientific and technical societies, and many of them in return conferred upon him the highest distinctions in their power” (Parsons, 1942). Thus, we as future engineers should take the stories of these inspiring engineers as an example to follow.

1489 Words


  • Appleyard, R. (1933). Charles Parsons His Life and Work, London: Constable and Company Ltd.
  • Fleming, A.P.M. and Brocklehurst, H.J. (1925). History of Engineering, London: A. and C. Black, Ltd.
  • Scaife, W.G. (2000). From Galaxies to Turbines, Science, Technology and the Parsons Family, London: Institute of Physics Publishing Bristol and Philadelphia.
  • Crawford, M. (2012) Charles A. Parsons [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 18 November 2015]
  • Bhattacharyya, R. (2012) Parsons, Charles, Encyclopedia of Energy [Online] Available from: [Accessed 18 November 2015]
  • Gibb, C. (2008). Parsons, Sir Charles Algernon [online]. Available from: [Accessed 16 November 2015].
  • Parsons, R.H. (1942). The Steam Turbine and Other Inventions of Sir Charles Parsons [online]. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Available from: [Accessed 15 November 2015].
  • How Products Are Made [Online]. (No date). Available from: [Accessed 15 November]
  • Sir Charles Algernon Parsons [online]. (No date). Available from: [Accessed 18 November 2015]
  • Science Museum [Online]. (No date). Available from: [Accessed 14 November 2015)
  • Electropaedia [Online]. (No date) Available from: [Accessed 15 November 2015]

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