"If you believe in a principle, never damage it with a poor impression. You must go all the way." Charles Parsons
June 4, 2012 4:41 PM   Subscribe

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 launched Turbinia, 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.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow (19 comments total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
I see what you did there
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:51 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

We are not amused.
posted by Trurl at 4:54 PM on June 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh no! You tricked me into learning something interesting!
posted by poe at 4:59 PM on June 4, 2012 [42 favorites]

The original Tim the Toolman Taylor
posted by wheelieman at 5:05 PM on June 4, 2012

We command that Parsons or his heritors should build a steam-powered land-yacht of similar dimensions and relative performance. Go now, and do our bidding.
posted by mwhybark at 5:20 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Talk about trolling!
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:25 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmm... tempted to give "Steampunk" a pass seeing as this involves a steam turbine and is also punk as fuck.

Anyone caught using it for random Victorian era inventor activities that are neither of those things should be beaten with sticks, of course. Glue on cogs optional.
posted by Artw at 6:26 PM on June 4, 2012

This, sir or ma'am, was a ridiculously excellent post. Thank you!
posted by Malor at 6:48 PM on June 4, 2012

In his picture does he have a double mustache? A full mustache and a pointed one? He has a fast boat and a kick-ass stache. He knows what he wants out of life.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:12 PM on June 4, 2012

I like the bit where he beat the cavitation problem by using 9 propellers and letting each turn more slowly. Take that, basic research in other fields! If he did something like that today he'd be taken out by patent trolls and regulatory blowhards.
posted by localroger at 7:21 PM on June 4, 2012

Nowadays, someone pulling an audacious, brilliant stunt like Parsons' Turbinia run would be blown to smithereens; his colleagues and family arrested; the Queen and other royals bundled into a secret underground shelter for weeks; the crowd detained and sifted for co-conspirators; and books of new anti-marine terrorist laws enacted, all for our protection.

Paranoia and progress do not mix well.
posted by cenoxo at 7:30 PM on June 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

@cenoxo would be blown to smithereens

Indeed. See Jubilee weekend: Rule Britannia! Biggest ever royal security operation takes to waves for Thames flotilla.
posted by raygirvan at 7:33 PM on June 4, 2012

Weird, I was just reading about this stunt the other day in Dreadnought.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:12 PM on June 4, 2012

Yeah, I think if it happened these days, the guys with those Olympic Missiles of Doom (TM - please don't sue me, IOC!) would have a chance to practice their aim and make an even bigger impression. Even for the 1890's that was a ballsy move, Mr. Parsons. Hat's off to you.
posted by Iosephus at 11:38 PM on June 4, 2012

I thought this was what the post was going to be about. Great story, isn't it?
posted by MartinWisse at 1:35 AM on June 5, 2012

Parsons is one of my favourite late 19th century inventors, and his Diamond Jubilee stunt one of the best engineering stories ever.

That said, one has to wonder whether the Royal Navy would not have been well-adviced to blow Turbinia to bits when it had the chance. The keystone of Britain's global naval domination at the time was its vast and dense network of coaling stations. By increasing the reach of individual warships, the steam turbine suddenly made much of that network redundant and opened the field to ambitious new entrants, such as the Imperial German Navy, but also the US Navy (which at the time, prior to its crushing victories in the Spanish-American War, was still perceived as very much second-rate) and the Imperial Japanese Navy. The steam turbine provided not just the means, but also the motivation for the naval arms race that ensued: while the lack of a comparable network of coaling stations had been a practical obstacle to those countries' colonial ambitions, this obstacle was now removed, suddenly turning them into much more formidable challengers.

It thus suddenly made sense for the two big established colonial powers, France and Britain, which had been bickering over the Sudan just a few years before, to join forces in the Entente Cordiale. But both colonial empires were now doomed, and Parsons' Diamond Jubilee stunt marked the beginning of the end of the vast empire which was being celebrated on that day.

Not that progress would have been stopped by the destruction of Turbinia, of course: there were plenty of other inventors tinkering away at steam turbine prototypes at the time, and Britain's naval dominance would have been even more directly under threat if the first turbine-powered warships had been launched in Bremen or Saint-Nazaire instead...
posted by Skeptic at 1:37 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nowadays, someone pulling an audacious, brilliant stunt like Parsons' Turbinia run would be blown to smithereens; his colleagues and family arrested; the Queen and other royals bundled into a secret underground shelter for weeks; the crowd detained and sifted for co-conspirators; and books of new anti-marine terrorist laws enacted, all for our protection.
Oh I dunno.
posted by fullerine at 2:48 AM on June 5, 2012

1994 was 18 years ago, fullerine. You know, before The War On Terror®.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 4:15 PM on June 5, 2012

one has to wonder whether the Royal Navy would not have been well-adviced to blow Turbinia to bits when it had the chance.

The problem with this theory is that, translating the situation into any warlike scenario, they didn't have the chance. Turbinia was too fast to target with the kind of guns that could have sunk her. The marginalization of Britain's coaling stations is a somewhat distant and secondary effect; the fact that Turbinia could literally run rings around everything floating is much more impressive. I suspect it was Turbinia's speed, and not her fuel efficiency, that got him punished for his stunt with a lucrative contract.

The rest is the Law of Unintended Consequences taking another bite out of someone's ass.
posted by localroger at 4:28 PM on June 5, 2012

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