This British Family Changed the Course of Engineering

Charles Parsons invented the modern steam turbine, but his wife and daughter built something just as lasting

Photo-illustration: IEEE Spectrum. Charles and Turbinia: SSPL/Getty Images; Katharine: Tyne & Wear Archives; Rachel: National Portrait Gallery, London

The Anglo-Irish engineer Charles Parsons knew how to make a splash. In honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the British Royal Navy held a parade of vessels on 26 June 1897 for the Lords of the Admiralty, foreign ambassadors, and other dignitaries. Parsons wasn’t invited, but he decided to join the parade anyway. Three years earlier, he’d introduced a powerful turbine generator—considered the first modern steam turbine—and he then built the SY Turbinia to demonstrate the engine’s power.

Arriving at the naval parade, Parsons raised a red pennant and then broke through the navy’s perimeter of patrol boats. With a top speed of almost 34 knots (60 kilometers per hour), Turbinia was faster than any other vessel and could not be caught. Parsons had made his point. The Royal Navy placed an order for its first turbine-powered ship the following year.

Onboard the Turbinia that day was Parsons’s 12-year-old daughter, Rachel, whose wide-ranging interests in science and engineering Parsons and his wife encouraged. From a young age, Rachel Parsons and her brother, Algernon, tinkered in their father’s home workshop, just as Charles had done when he was growing up. Indeed, the Parsons family tree shows generation after generation of engineering inquisitiveness from both the men and the women, each of whom made their mark on the field.

Charles grew up at Birr Castle, in County Offaly, Ireland. His father, William, who became the 3rd Earl of Rosse in 1841, was a mathematician with an interest in astronomy. Scientists and inventors, including Charles Babbage, traveled to Birr Castle to see the Leviathan of Parsonstown, a 1.8-meter (72-inch) reflecting telescope that William built during the 1840s. His wife, Mary, a skilled blacksmith, forged the iron work for the telescope’s tube.

William dabbled in photography, unsuccessfully attempting to photograph the stars. Mary was the real photography talent. Her detailed photos of the famous telescope won the Photographic Society of Ireland’s first Silver Medal.

Charles and his siblings enjoyed a traditional education by private tutors. They also had the benefit of a hands-on education, experimenting with the earl’s many steam-powered machines, including a steam-powered carriage. They worked on the Leviathan’s adjustment apparatus and in their mother’s dark room.

After studying mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin, and St. John’s College, Cambridge, Charles apprenticed at the Elswick Works, a large manufacturing complex operated by the engineering firm W.G. Armstrong in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. It was unusual for someone of his social class to apprentice, and he paid £500 for the opportunity (about US $60,000 today), in the hopes of later gaining a management position.

During his time at the works, Charles refined some engine designs that he’d sketched out while at Cambridge. The reciprocating, or piston, steam engine had by then been around for more than 100 years, itself an improvement on Thomas Newcomen’s earlier but inefficient atmospheric steam engine. Beginning in the 1760s, James Watt and Matthew Boulton made improvements that included adding a separate condenser to eliminate the loss of heat when water was injected into the cylinder. The water created a vacuum and pulled the piston in a stroke. A later improvement was the double-acting engine, where the piston could both push and pull. Still, piston steam engines were loud, dirty, and prone to exploding, and Charles saw room for improvement.

His initial design was for a four-cylinder epicycloidal engine, in which the cylinders as well as the crankshaft rotated. One advantage of this unusual configuration was that it could work at high speed with limited vibration. Charles designed it to directly drive a dynamo so as to avoid any connecting belts or pulleys. He applied for a British patent in 1877 at the age of 23.

Charles offered the design to his employer, who declined, but Kitson and Co., a locomotive manufacturer in Leeds, was interested. Charles’s brother Richard Clere Parsons was a partner at Kitson and persuaded him to join the company, which eventually produced 40 of the engines. Charles spent two years there, mostly working on rocket-powered torpedoes that proved unsuccessful.

More successful was his courting of Katharine Bethell, the daughter of a prominent Yorkshire family. Charles was said to have impressed Katharine with his skill at needlework, and they married in 1883.

In 1884, Charles became a junior partner and the head of the electrical section at Clarke, Chapman and Co., a manufacturer of marine equipment in Newcastle upon Tyne. He developed a new turbine engine, which he used to drive an electric generator, also of his own design. [His first prototype, now part of the collection of the Science Museum, London, is shown above.] The turbine generator was 1.73 meters long, 0.4 meters wide, and 0.8 meters high, and it weighed a metric ton.

Charles Parsons’s engine is often considered the first modern turbine. Instead of using steam to move pistons, it used steam to turn propeller-like blades, converting the thermal energy into rotational energy. Parsons’s original design was inefficient, running at 18,000 rpm and producing 7.5 kilowatts—about the power of a small household backup generator today. He made rapid incremental improvements, such as changing the shape of the blades, and he soon had an engine with an output of 50,000 kW, which would be enough to power up to 50,000 homes today.

In 1889 Charles established C.A. Parsons and Co., in Heaton, a suburb of Newcastle, with the goal of manufacturing his turbo-generator. The only hitch was that Clarke, Chapman still held the patent rights. While the patent issues got sorted out, Charles founded the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Co., which became the first electric company to rely entirely on steam turbines. It wouldn’t be the last.

During his lifetime, he saw turbine-generated electricity become affordable and readily available to a large population. Even today, most electricity generation relies on steam turbines.

Once Charles had secured the patent rights to his invention, he set about improving the steam turbo-generator, making it more efficient and more compact. He established the Marine Steam Turbine Co., which built the Turbinia in 1894. Charles spent several years refining the mechanics before the ship made its sensational public appearance at the Diamond Jubilee. In 1905, just eight years after the Turbinia’s public debut, the British admiralty decided all future Royal Navy vessels should be turbine powered. The private commercial shipping industry followed suit.

Charles Parsons never stopped designing or innovating, trying his hand at many other ventures. Not all were winners. For instance, he spent 25 years attempting to craft artificial diamonds before finally admitting defeat. More lucrative was the manufacture of optical glass for telescopes and searchlights. In the end, he earned over 300 patents, received a knighthood, and was awarded the Order of Merit.

But Charles was not the only engineer in his very talented household.

When I first started thinking about this month’s column, I wanted to mark the centenary of the founding of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), one of the oldest organizations dedicated to the advancement of women in engineering. I searched for a suitable museum object that honored female engineers. That proved more difficult than I anticipated. Although the WES maintains extensive archives at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, including a complete digitized run of its journal, The Woman Engineer, it doesn’t have much in the way of three-dimensional artifacts. There was, for example, a fancy rose bowl that was commissioned for the society’s 50th anniversary. But it seemed not quite right to represent women engineers with a purely decorative object.

I then turned my attention to the founders of WES, who included Charles Parsons’s wife, Katharine, and daughter, Rachel. Although Charles was a prolific inventor, neither Katharine nor Rachel invented anything, so there was no obvious museum object linked to them. But inventions aren’t the only way to be a pioneering engineer.

After what must have been a wonderful childhood of open-ended inquiry and scientific exploration, Rachel followed in her father’s footsteps to Cambridge. She was one of the first women to study mechanical sciences there. At the time, though, the university barred women from receiving a degree.

When World War I broke out and Rachel’s brother enlisted, she took over his position as a director on the board of the Heaton Works. She also joined the training division of the Ministry of Munitions and was responsible for instructing thousands of women in mechanical tasks.

As described in Henrietta Heald’s upcoming book Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines (to be published in February 2020 by the crowdfunding publisher Unbound), the war brought about significant demographic changes in the British workforce. More than 2 million women went to work outside the home, as factories ramped up to increase war supplies of all sorts. Of these, more than 800,000 entered the engineering trades.

This upsurge in female employment coincided with a shift in national sentiment toward women’s suffrage. Women had been fighting for the right to vote for decades, and they finally achieved a partial success in 1918, when women over the age of 30 who met certain property and education requirements were allowed to vote. It took another decade before women had the same voting rights as men.

But these political and workplace victories for women were built on shaky ground. The passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace. But the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, passed the same year, required that women give up their jobs to returning servicemen, unless they happened to work for firms that had employed women in the same role before the war.

These contradictory laws both stemmed from negotiations between Prime Minister David Lloyd George and British trade unions. The unions had vigorously objected to employing women during the war, but the government needed the women to work. And so it came up with the Treasury Agreement of 1915, which stipulated that skilled work could be subdivided and automated, allowing women and unskilled men to take them on. Under those terms, the unions acquiesced to the “dilution” of the skilled male workforce.

And so, although the end of the war brought openings for women in some professions, tens of thousands of women in engineering suddenly found themselves out of work.

The Parsons women fought back, using their social standing to advocate on behalf of female engineers. On 23 June 1919, Katharine and Rachel Parsons, along with several other prominent women, founded the Women’s Engineering Society to resist the relinquishing of wartime jobs to men and to promote engineering as a rewarding profession for both sexes.

Two weeks later, Katharine gave a rousing speech, “Women’s Work in Engineering and Shipbuilding during the War” [PDF] at a meeting of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders. “Women are able to work on almost every known operation in engineering, from the most highly skilled precision work, measured to [the] micrometer, down to the rougher sort of laboring jobs,” she proclaimed. “To enumerate all the varieties of work intervening between these two extremes would be to make a catalogue of every process in engineering.” Importantly, Katharine mentioned not just the diluted skills of factory workers but also the intellectual and design work of female engineers.

Just as impassioned, Rachel wrote an article for the National Review several months later that positioned the WES as a voice for women engineers:

Women must organize; this is the only royal road to victory in the industrial world. Women have won their political independence; now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too. It is useless to wait patiently for the closed doors of the skilled trade unions to swing open. It is better far to form a strong alliance, which, armed as it will be with the parliamentary vote, may be as powerful an influence in safeguarding the interests of women-engineers as the men’s unions have been in improving the lot of their members.

The following year, Rachel was one of the founding members of an all-female engineering firm, Atalanta, of which her mother was a shareholder. The firm specialized in small machinery work, similar to the work Rachel had been overseeing at her father’s firm. Although the business voluntarily shuttered after eight years, the name lived on as a manufacturer of small hand tools and household fixtures.

The WES has had a much longer history. In its first year, it began publishing The Women Engineer, which still comes out quarterly. In 1923 the WES began holding an annual conference, which has been canceled only twice, both times due to war. Over its 100 years, the organization worked to secure employment rights for women from the shop floor to management, guarantee access to formal education, and even encouraged the use of new consumer technologies, such as electrical appliances in the home.

Early members of the WES came from many different branches of engineering. Dorothée Pullinger ran a factory in Scotland that produced the Galloway, an automobile that was entirely designed and built by women for women. Amy Johnson was a world-renowned pilot who also earned a ground engineer’s license. Jeanie Dicks, the first female member of the Electrical Contractors Association, won the contract for the electrification of Winchester Cathedral.

Today the WES continues its mission of supporting women in pursuit of engineering, scientific, and technical careers. Its website gives thanks and credit to early male allies, including Charles Parsons, who supported female engineers. Charles may have earned his place in history due to his numerous inventions, but if you come across his turbine at the Science Museum, remember that his wife and daughter earned their places, too.

An abridged version of this article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “As the Turbine Turns.”

Part of a continuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

This article was corrected on 28 June 2019 to clarify Charles Parsons’s heritage.

About the Author

Allison Marsh is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and codirector of the university’s Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology & Society.