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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The Godfather of South Korea’s Chip Industry

How Kim Choong-Ki helped the nation become a semiconductor superpower

15 min read
A man in a dark suit, bald with some grey hair, leans against a shiny blue wall, in which he is reflected.

Kim Choong-Ki, now an emeritus professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, was the first professor in South Korea to systematically teach semiconductor engineering.

Korea Academy of Science and Technology
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They were called “Kim’s Mafia.” Kim Choong-Ki himself wouldn’t have put it that way. But it was true what semiconductor engineers in South Korea whispered about his former students: They were everywhere.

Starting in the mid-1980s, as chip manufacturing in the country accelerated, engineers who had studied under Kim at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) assumed top posts in the industry as well as coveted positions teaching or researching semiconductors at universities and government institutes. By the beginning of the 21st century, South Korea had become a dominant power in the global semiconductor market, meeting more than 60 percent of international demand for memory chips alone. Around the world, many of Kim’s protégés were lauded for their brilliant success in transforming the economy of a nation that had just started assembling radio sets in 1959 and was fabricating outdated memory chips in the early ’80s.

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