The last gasp of the age of steam

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PETER RODGERS and CHRIS GODSMARK

Another dark shadow of de- industrialisation passed over Britain yesterday when the Parsons turbine engineering works came under serious threat of closure, with the loss of 1,600 jobs.

Steam turbines have none of the romance of the great north-eastern shipyards such as Swan Hunter, which went bust in 1993 and was revived recently for a modest role in ship repairs and conversions. But for professional engineers everywhere, Parsons is celebrated as thehome of the steam turbine, an invention that put Newcastle on the industrial map of Britain.

The company was founded in 1889 by Sir Charles Parsons, who devised the first industrial turbine, after two centuries in which engineers had struggled and failed to turn a toy - first built by Hero of Alexandria in 130AD - into a practical machine.

As well as providing cheap electricity, the Parsons turbine took the world's navies by storm after an unauthorised demonstration in 1897. The 2,000hp launch Turbinia weaved around the warships at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee review at Spithead at 40mph, a then unprecedented speed. Turbines were soon the main propulsion for warships and appeared later in the Mauretania and the Titanic.

Parsons' history since the Second World War has been marked by tough competition that forced a series of mergers ending with a takeover by Rolls-Royce, the aeroengineers, in 1989. Rolls yesterday put up a for- sale sign up after losses of pounds 30m last year, but experts cast doubt on whether a buyer could be found.

Tom Brennan, of the Newcastle Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering unions, said "It's a complete shock. But there's a real determination among the workforce for survival."

Business and City, page 18

Comments