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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

9 min read
Photo-illustration of headshots of Charles Parsons, Katharine Parsons, and Rachel Parsons.
Charles and Katharine Parsons (left and middle) encouraged their daughter, Rachel (right), to become an engineer.
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.

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How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented

Three decades of UI research came together in the mice, windows, and icons used today

18 min read
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Stylized drawing of a desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, on the screen are windows, Icons, and menus
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum
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Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.

But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.

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