Unusual marketing technique: an inventor offered a demonstration of his custom-built speedboat design by speeding past security and crashing the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations
It was 1897, the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria’s reign. Charles Algernon Parsons
was bent on making steampunk mad science out of his rather practical discovery, the modern reaction turbine
Background: turbines produce torque by extracting energy from a continuous fluid flow. The idea of powering a machine with a continuous jet of steam is very old. ( Hero of Alexandria
’s aeolipile) The first reaction turbine seems to have been the steam-jack
developed by Taqi al-Din
(1526–1585AD). It fired a jet of steam from a boiler through a nozzle at the vanes of a small windmill. One problem with firing high pressure steam at the blades of a turbine is “the well-known cutting action on metal of steam at high velocity.” Parsons’ innovation in 1884 was “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.” (Parsons, in a 1911 lecture
). This remains the most energy efficient way to get torque from pressurized steam.
The most important application Parsons found for his steam turbine was electric power generation. The design of his 7.4 kW prototype generator was bought up by George Westinghouse
and scaled up from there. In 1900 an industrial scale 1.5 MW power plant built around a Parsons turbine went into operation. However, at the time it would have seemed that turbines for ship propulsion were an even more important development.
Up to that point, steamships were powered by reciprocating engines
- pistons. Steam turbines have a higher power-to-weight ratio, are more compact and produce less vibration than reciprocating engines. Most importantly from the perspective of the British navy, turbines are more fuel efficient than reciprocating engines. The need to control a worldwide empire linked together by a thin chain of coaling stations made fuel economy a priority for the Royal Navy, enough so that many British ships were combination steam/sail powered right up until the turn of the 20th century. The last British battleship built to carry sails (Inflexible
) remained in service until 1897. For that reason, the British Admiralty was keeping an eye on Parsons when the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company
, in 1894.
Turbinia’s initial performance was uninspiring. As Parsons soon discovered, the problem was that its propeller was spinning so fast as to produce cavitation
. Parsons solved the problem in a somewhat Rube Goldberg fashion by redesigning Turbinia to have nine propellers
each rotating at a mere 2500 RPM.
The ship was ready for its first public demonstration: an uninvited appearance at the Navy Review
for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at Spithead on June 26th, 1897. Here is what she looked like,
104 feet long, 9 feet wide, clipping along with her bow lifted out of the water. At her top speed of 34 knots (60 kph), observers saw only “a bow emerging from a huge wave and a flame from the funnel flickering into the air.” Flames literally burned the paint off the ship’s funnel on every run. The noise of the turbines half deafened the crew. Turbinia slipped into the review, speeding between larger ships, at times literally running circles around the patrol boats that were supposed to be maintaining security. Turbinia was simply too fast to be caught. Parsons did minor damage to one of the ships in the review; Turbinia had been towing a small boat, but the tow-line parted while Turbinia was making a tight turn, causing the boat to collide with a French yacht. Nevertheless, for the most part, a good time was had by all.
The British Government punished Parsons by giving him a contract to build turbines for the Royal Navy’s first turbine powered warships, the Torpedo Boat Destroyers HMS Cobra
and HMS Viper. In 1905 the Royal Navy announced that all future warships would be turbine powered.
The steam turbine is half of the story of why the construction of the battleship Dreadnought
in 1906 kicked off an arms race
at the turn of the 20th century. Dreadnought was both the first all-big-gun battleship and the first turbine powered battleship. The all-big-gun design gave it roughly triple the firepower of a similar sized pre-dreadnought in a long range gun duel. The turbine engine made it faster by far than any battleship then afloat, gave it longer range due to fuel efficiency and, due to its light weight, made it possible for the ship to do all that while also being incrementally better armored.
Unfortunately Victoria was not present to witness Turbinia’s run, being too ill to attend the review. She had a rather better time downing grog
at the 1842 Grand Review.
Previously: credit to cenoxo, who talked about Turbinia in a comment to a 2006 post about Hero of Alexandria's aeolipile.