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How do revolutions in technology prove themselves?

Contributed by Eric Bender

Barely a foot long, the model of the Turbinia is the smallest exhibit in the Museum's Hart Nautical Gallery. But it captures one of the biggest revolutions in ship design and propulsion: the steam turbine.

In the late 1800s, steam power ruled the waves. The steam engines were reciprocating designs in which the steam drove pistons back and forth, somewhat like the pistons in today's internal combustion engines. This back-and-forth motion had to be turned into rotary action to drive propellers or paddle wheels.

Turbines, which push liquids or gases through a channel outfitted with rotating blades, had been known and used for centuries to pump water. In 1884, the English engineer Charles Parsons built the first successful prototype of the modern steam turbine, far more efficient and compact than reciprocating engines.

Model of Turbinia in the Hart Nautical Gallery. Made by Evers Burtner, circa 1950. MIT Museum 1985.042.001.
Charles A. Parsons, inventor and engineer. Smithsonian Institution, SIL-SIL14-p001-13

Ten years later, Parsons and his partners built the Turbinia as a platform to demonstrate the advantages of steam turbines for ships. Parsons first used working models to test alternative hull designs and propeller configurations, with surprisingly accurate results. The resulting vessel, 103 feet long and only nine feet wide, let him further experiment with different propeller combinations, solving the difficult problem of translating the turbine's high-speed rotation into practical propulsion.

After years of painstaking work, Turbinia, outfitted with three shafts holding three propellers each, achieved a speed of 33 knots over a measured mile in April 1897. She was the fastest ship in the world.

But when Parsons presented these results to a meeting of naval architects, many were highly skeptical, particularly since there was not yet any direct way to measure the power turbines produced.

How could Parsons and his professional allies truly persuade the conservative world of shipbuilding to adopt turbines? They put together a daring plan.

Turbinia steaming at about forty miles per hour. This photo accompanied an article that Charles Parsons wrote for Popular Science Monthly, titled “Steam Turbines and High-Speed Vessels,” in 1900 (volume 56, pages 696-706).

1897 was also the year Britain's Queen Victoria was celebrating the 50th year of her reign. One major event in her Diamond Jubilee was a grand review of the cream of the British Navy, by far the largest in the world. Held at the Spithead anchorage on England's southern coast in June, the naval review featured 165 ships, with warships from other European countries all neatly lined up alongside the British fleet.

Turbinia suddenly crashed this celebration, charging at full speed along the lines of ships, flame belching from its smokestack and Parsons himself running the engine room. As Navy officers tried unsuccessfully to flag her down with much slower small craft, the crowds on the warships were suitably shocked and amazed.

Turbinia dwarfed by the giant Mauretania, powered by massive steam turbines and built less than ten years after Turbinia’s appearance at Spithead. Science Museum Group, 1928-166.

Not surprisingly, this Spithead stunt gathered a great deal of attention around the world.

It also triggered both navies and commercial shipowners to begin testing steam turbines on larger vessels. Naval architects and shipowners remained understandably concerned about the reliability and safety of the new power plants. Turbines also suffered from the drawback that they could not run in reverse, unlike reciprocating engines, so the first turbine-equipped ships didn't back up very well.

But the sheer power and efficiency of turbines soon won out. The British Navy gave its official stamp of approval by ordering turbines for the Dreadnought, a radical next-generation battleship commissioned in 1906.

Commercial shipowners also began to install the new engines in huge passenger vessels. Perhaps the most notable was the Cunard liner Mauretania, which was the world's largest ship when launched that same year. With four giant turbines producing something like 70,000 horsepower, the liner held Atlantic-crossing records until 1929.

For decades, high-speed ships ran on steam turbine engines, with coal fuel gradually replaced by oil. Today, most ships run on diesel combustion, diesel-electric engines, gas turbines, or some mix of those power sources. But nuclear-powered ships, including submarines and aircraft carriers, are still driven by steam turbines.

Model of Turbinia in the Hart Nautical Gallery. Made by Evers Burtner, circa 1950. MIT Museum 1985.042.001.

The Hart Gallery's Turbinia model was created around 1950 by Evers Burtner, a 1915 MIT graduate who became an associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at the Institute. Turbinia herself was retired and brought ashore in 1908. She survives in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle, England, where visitors can see what lit the spark for steam turbine ships.

At the Spithead naval review, Turbinia convincingly demonstrated that turbines would revolutionize steamship technology. When thinking of other revolutions in technology, what convinced you of its success? What made you confident that it was a good idea?

How do revolutions in technology prove themselves?