The company that transformed steam into power

Parsons turbines supplied the 'Titanic' and transformed Newcastle into a world force in marine and power engineering, writes Peter Rodgers
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The Independent Online
The Parsons turbine works is not quite the potent symbol of traditional North-eastern industrial history that the Swan Hunter shipbuilding yard and the vanished coal mines represented.

But the long established business is every bit as important a part of the engineering tradition of the North-east as the better known shipyard.

If a buyer is not found, Parsons' disappearance could have a greater impact on the local economy than Swan's decline over the last 15 years from a substantial shipbuilder to a small repair and conversion yard.

Keith Burge, of Economic Research Services, a Newcastle consultancy, said Parsons has a much broader base in the North-east than Swan Hunter, when it was building ships, because it used dozens and perhaps hundreds of local suppliers. "The ramifications of its disappearance would be dreadful. It would probably be worse than Swan Hunter," he said.

In contrast to Parsons, Swan Hunter did not source a large proportion of its supplies locally. Most of the yard's big spending was on sophisticated electronics made elsewhere in the country for the warships it built, according to studies done by ERS a few years ago.

And although Parsons is not a nationally known name to conjure with, except among engineers and visitors to Newcastle's museum of science and engineering, Mr Burge saw the company, with its history of great engineers and of technical innovation, as "every bit as important in the local consciousness as Swan Hunter".

Parsons was founded by Sir Charles Parsons, whose great achievement was to be the first engineer to turn the steam turbine, a device first built by Hero of Alexandria AD130 and attempted by many engineers in the 18th and 19th centuries, into an industrial machine. A hundred years before, James Watt had poured scorn on the practicalities of a turbine.

All Sir Charles' predecessors had been defeated by the attempt to tame steam escaping from a nozzle at 1,500 mph, the rate at which turbines became efficient. Sir Charles overcame this by splitting the blast of steam as it went through the machine.

The original turbine development was intended for generating electricity, and Parsons became one of the main suppliers of turbines for power stations, which is now its main business.

But it also revolutionised naval warfare and large-ship propulsion. Parsons turbines powered Swan's ships.

This began when the 2,000 horsepower prototype launch Turbinia, using Sir Charles' steam turbine, astonished sceptical naval officers by weaving through the lines of warships at Queen Victoria's 1897 Royal Naval Spithead review at a then unbelievable 34.5 knots (nearly 40mph).

It was giving a spectacular - and unauthorised - demonstration of the abilities of the steam turbine. A dozen year's later, the Titanic's vast engine room included a Parsons turbine alongside more conventional units.

After a pounds 1.25m restoration, the Turbinia, which made Newcastle a world force in marine and power engineering, is on public display again at a new exhibition hall at the City's Discovery Museum.

The North still has a higher concentration of manufacturing than most other regions. But the jobs profile has been changing fast, boosted by inward investment such as the pounds 1bn Siemens plant in Newcastle.

Northern Development, which promotes inward investment, says 38,000 jobs have been created by overseas investment since 1985. But such figures disguise a strong trend away from full-time manufacturing jobs to part- time female service employment.