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Charles Parsons — A Mathematician by Trade

September 23rd, 2013

A mathematician by training and an engineer by trade, Charles Algernon Parsons earned his fame by inventing the steam turbine engine in the mid 1880s — an invention that would revolutionize ocean travel and merchant shipping, as well as naval warfare. His robust career is yet another example of the contributions of engineering to the world of human endeavor.

Charles Parsons — Childhood, Scholastic Accomplishments, and Early Career

Charles Parsons was born in 1854, the youngest of the six sons of famous English astronomer, William Parsons. A mathematical and mechanical engineering prodigy, Parsons and his brothers built their own 4-horsepower steam carriage when Charles was only 12. He parlayed that natural talent into a first class mathematics honors degree from Cambridge’s St. Jamescareer-in-engineeri College in 1877.

After serving an apprenticeship for a Newcastle-based engineering firm, Parsons joined Kitson and Company, located in Yorkshire, where he designed rocket torpedoes. In 1884, he became the Director of Electrical Equipment Development for Clarke, Chapman, and Company, a ship engine manufacturer located near Newcastle.

The Invention of the Steam Turbine Engine

While at Clarke, Chapman, and Company, Parsons developed a multi-stage turbine engine, using an innovative design the restricted the stream in each stage to derive the most kinetic energy possible. This engine allowed electricity to be generated at a much lower cost, revolutionizing shipping and ultimately other industries as well.

In 1889, he founded his own company, C.A. Parsons and Company to build these new turbo generators. Parsons’ turbine design also saw wide use in electricity generating stations. His crowning achievement was the ship, Turbina, which used three parallel-flow turbines able to reuse the steam. The ship reached speeds of over 34 knots, which was very fast for the time.

Parsons’ turbines saw wide use throughout the shipping fleets of the day, including the Titanic, and also became the industry standard for on-land electricity generation. Parsons was knighted in 1911 and died in 1931.

Charles Parsons’ career features the kind of innovation that inspires current and fledgling engineers to enter the practice. If you want to enhance your prospects in this rewarding field, talk to the experts at the Talley Group. One of the leading engineering staffing firms in the Seattle area — they can help supercharge your career.

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