Charles Algernon Parsons’ turbine-powered PR stunt: The "Turbinia" at the Spithead Navy Review in 1897

26 June 1897, during the Naval Review at Spithead in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Charles Algernon Parsons’ experimental vessel “Turbinia” sneaked unannounced into a race of the Royal Navy’s fastest destroyers, easily outran them, thereby breaking all speed records for ships and setting the standards for the propulsion of ships to this day.

“Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.” (Walter Benjamin)

A contemporary engraving after a photograph, showing “Turbinia” beginning her race with various warships in the background.

Charles Algernon Parsons already had become a talking point when he caused the first recorded fatal accident involving a self-constructed horseless carriage and his cousin Mary, before he began to study engineering in earnest, graduated with first-class honours and set forth to revolutionise the world of propulsion. Working first on rocket-powered torpedoes for W.G. Armstrong and a couple of years later for the British engineering firm as head of electrical equipment development on the development of a turbine engine to drive an electrical generator. As an alternative method of propulsion to the standard 19th century steam engine, Parsons’ steam turbine was about to change the world – even though naval authorities would hear nothing about it at first, every bit as they tried to ignore steam power and armour half a century before.

"Turbinia" making 35 knots or about 40 mph

Parsons decided to pull a PR stunt to promote his invention that would indeed open the eyes of the world. The Naval Review at Spithead was not only a show to celebrate the might of Britannia’s navy ruling the waves but had international naval notables present as well. Parsons had equipped a perfectly streamlined yacht with his new steam turbines, calling her in a pang of an engineer’s linguistic innovativeness “Turbinia” and lined her up among the civilian vessels on the Thames watching the parade of state-of-the-art warships passing by. When the destroyers were about to start their announced race, Parsons hoisted a red ensign aboard of “Turbinia”, left the civilians’ cordon of ships, leaving the Navy’s patrol vessels simply flat behind.

Turbine-powered HMS "Dreadnought" at sea in 1906

A really fast destroyer could reach a top speed of 27 knots (31 mph / 50 kph) in 1896, “Turbinia” flew down the Thames at 34 knots (40 mph / 63 kph), leaving nothing to be desired in terms of speed and while the yacht was greeted with a barrage of catcalls from the audience when she started her race, everyone, including the Admiralty, was speechless when she finished. The first capital ships powered by steam turbines were RMS “Lusitania” (1906) and RMS “Mauretania” (1907), both winning the Blue Riband for their crossing of the Atlantic at record speed, several times in a row. The navy started to successfully experiment with turbines in 1899 with the destroyers HMS “Cobra” and “Viper”. HMS “Dreadnought” was the first battleship equipped with turbines. When she was commissioned in 1906, “Dreadnought” was the world’s most modern and fastest battleship, everything that was built before was classified as pre-Dreadnought.

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