Overview of Charles Parson’s Steam Engine
The relationship between engineering and science is remarkably exhibited in the creation of revolutionary machinery such as the steam engine. This stupendous creation was brought to life by an engineer through harnessing the extraordinary power of steam. The power of steam could be compared to a tea kettle’s boiling water turning to steam. The steam’s volume is significantly greater than that of the liquid water, enabling it to generate energy as it expands.
In the early 18th century, engineers tapped into this force to drive reciprocating steam engines. The steam engine’s operation is quite fascinating. High-pressure steam enters into a designated piston channel, and as it expands, it pushes the piston to the right. This action, when observed slowly, reveals that as the piston reaches the end of its travel rightward, a section called a d-valve slides in the opposite direction and reroutes the steam.
In the late 19th century, a novel steam engine appeared. Perfected by a man named Charles Parsons, the new engine used expanding steam from approximately 479 times a cup of water’s volume. This leap forward, however, faced initial rejection, especially from the British Navy and the major cruise line companies of the time. In response, Parsons built a ship named Turbinia to demonstrate his engine’s superiority. Launched unexpectedly during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Turbinia, the fastest ship in the world at that time, easily outpaced the Navy’s fastest patrol boats.
Parsons’ steam engine eliminated the need for pistons, cylinders, and levers that convert reciprocating motion into circular motion. Combining two methods of using steam to rotate a shaft – one being a device called an eolopile designed by Hero of Alexandria and the other being a scheme borrowed from 17th-century Italian engineer Giovanni Branca – Parsons created his turbine. He brilliantly orchestrated the multiple elements of a turbine: the wheels, the blades, and their respective placements. Thanks to carefully estimating multiple variables and engineering equations, Parsons engineered each wheel to rotate at the same rate, all the while allowing for the expanding steam to travel down the turbine.
Parsons’ reliance on scientific knowledge facilitated the device’s success. He drew upon data compiled by the French scientist Henry Victor Regnault, who spent nearly thirty years documenting the properties of steam. Using this data, Parsons could estimate the extent of steam expansion and its velocity at every wheel in his turbine. This immense volume of scientific observations and conclusions provided Parsons the critical knowledge to increase the blade spacing as the steam traveled down the turbine, contributing vastly to the success of his steam engine.
Even today, descendants of Parsons’ turbine continue to generate the world’s electricity through steam power, a testament to the engineer’s successful application of fundamental scientific principles to one of history’s most impactful engineering innovations.