The ‘Golden Age’ of steam ships

Published on: 

The author talked about some of the British war ships and Parsons turbine designs in the previous article. Here, he explains how the Parsons turbines, with a combined impulse and reaction design, were used in ships.

Now back to the Parsons steam turbines used in ships in foreign countries. France built its first steam turbine driven ship in 1900, the small torpedo boat called “No. 293”.

(The Voltaiare, which was driven by Parsons steam turbine)

It was only 30 feet longer than the “Turbinia” and had 1900 horse power. It attained a speed of 26.7 knots. 

Then there was a pause until 1906 when the torpedo boat the “Chasseur” was ordered but was not completed until 1909. It was about twice as long as the first ship and had 9,000 HP. It achieved a speed of 30.4 knots.

Late in 1906, after much discussion, the French Navy took a leap forward and ordered 6 battle ships all at one time to be driven by Parsons steam turbines to be made in France, the “Voltaiare”, “Danton”, “Vergniaud”, “Condorcet”, “ Diderot”, and the “Mirabeau”.  Each had 22,500HP turbines. A bunch more steam turbine ships followed and the later ones had the new Parsons combined impulse and reaction design.

The first steam turbines built in France were for merchant ships such as the Mediterranean ship the “Charles Roux” that had 9,000 HP and a speed of 19 knots. Then came the famous Transatlantic liner “France” with 40,000 HP steam turbines having a speed of 23 knots in 1910. After 1906 there came a string of French merchant and Naval vessels like machine gun bullets.

Germany at first was skeptical of the steam turbine for ships, but late in 1902 it ordered its first destroyer, the “S.125”, one of 6. It had Parsons steam turbines but the other 5 had recip steam engines. After much discussion came in 1903 the cruiser “Lubeck” that was steam turbine driven. The “Lubeck” outperformed its sister recip steam powered ship the “Hamburg” and then the steam turbine was preferred. The discussion was now over and the steam turbine had won. Many German merchant and Naval vessels followed. BBC in Mannheim started building steam turbines for these ships. Strangely, however, Germany did not build many merchant vessels in these early years.

The United States first installed the Parsons steam turbine in the merchant vessel the “Governor Cobb” in 1905 for a run between Boston and St. John's. The speed was 20.5 knots, the ship having a 4000 HP turbine. The US in 1905 ordered three small scout cruiser Naval vessels, all of the same size for evaluation purposes. The “Birmingham” had recip steam engines, the “Salem” had Curtis (GE) steam turbines and the “Chester” was equipped with Parsons (W) Steam turbines. The “Chester” obtained a speed of 26.52 knots, the “Salem a speed of 25947 knots and the recip “Birmingham only 24.825 knots. The two turbine-powered ships had practically the same coal fuel consumption and the recip ship used more. The US Navy therefore started ordering Parsons (W) steam turbines for some of its battle ships to follow.  However, the US Navy continued to use recip steam engines for some of its battle ships like the USS “Texas” and the USS “New York” until 1911.


Passenger ships in mid 1905

The next ships ordered were passenger ships in mid 1905, the “Yale” and the “Harvard” with 10,000 HP and a tested speed of 20.5 knots. They were for passenger service between Boston and New York.  Then 3 more of about the same kind came along. In 1907, the US Navy ordered five destroyers with Parsons steam turbine all at one time. Six more destroyers were ordered in1908 and fitted with Parsons steam turbines. At last, in 1908, the US ordered four large battle ships, the “Utah”, the “Florida”, the “Arkansas” and the “Wyoming” the first two having 28,000 HP and the other two 30,000 HP. There were no large merchant transatlantic ships listed made by the US up to 1911, the end of the book and I could not find any on the web up to this date. However, later on, the US got into the act.

The US battle ship “Texas” was one of the last two ships of this kind made in the United States having reciprocating steam engines. The other was the battle ship “New York” ordered a few months later. The “Texas” was ordered early in 1911 and launched May 12, 1912. It was powered by a 28,100 HP 4 cylinder triple-expansion steam reciprocating engine rotating at 125 RPM with a steam throttle pressure of 265 psig. This man-of-war ship had a top speed of 21 knots. It carried 1,314 crew members and participated in both WW I and WW II. It shelled Normandy, France before, during and after the June 6th D-Day invasion. It later went to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. Presently, it is on display at its permanent berth at the San Jacinto Battleground on the Houston, Texas ship channel for all to see and tour. 

People from all over the world come to see it. It was given to Texas on April 21, 1948 by the US Government. It was designated an ASME National Mechanical Engineering Landmark on December 1, 1975. I was, at the time, chairman of the ASME South Texas Section of ASME and therefore officiated at the dedication ceremony that took place on USS “Texas's” deck. I still have a copy of the printed program and brochure. 

Japan had been watching the development of the Parsons steam turbines from afar and drug their feet until 1908 when four mail liner merchant ships were ordered, two having imported Parsons steam turbines in thlem (“Tenyo Naru” and the “Chiyo Maru”) and the other two having Parsons turbines built by Denny of Dumbarton  (Hirafu Maru” and “Tamura  Maru”). The first two used engine designs taken from the “Dreadnought”, the first achieved a speed of 21.39 knots and the second 21.3 knots. A fifth ship, a dispatch vessel for the Imperial Japanese Navy was completed  in mid 1908 named “Mogami”. Another ship, the most important one having 4 shafts, was ordered in 1910 by the Imperial Japanese Navy and had the new Parsons impulse-reaction design in it being built by the Vickers Company.

Spain's battleships

Spain ordered three battleships, the “Espana”, the “Alfonso XIII” and the “Jami I” from British construction companies. They were moderate in size and speed. Then came three destroyers – the “Bustamente”, the “Villamil” and the “Requesens”— designed for 28 knots speed. These ships were made from 1906 to 1908.

Russia had on order as of 1910 four battleships, the “Gangut”, the ”Polava”, the “Sevastopol” and the “Petropavlovak” all with Parsons turbines of 42,000 horsepower each with engines similar to the French battleships.

Italy in 1908, ordered by its Royal Italian Government the Parsons steam turbine powered armored cruiser the “San Marco”.  On her trials in July of 1910 she attained a speed of 23.7 knots surpassing the speed of her sister recip steam powered ship by 2 miles per hour. Italy then had built two merchant vessels the “Citta di Catania” and the “Citta di Palermo” whose turbines were built by ltalian companies for service between Naples and Palermo. In 1911, Italy had on order four large battleships, a scout cruiser, several torpedo-boat destroyers and a torpedo boat, all powered by Parsons turbine designs.  Italy had by 1911 gone wild for Parsons steam turbines.

Austria ordered its first steam turbine powered ship in 1907, a cruiser named “Admiral Spaun”. It had a 25,100 horsepower Parsons designed turbine and attained a speed of 27.07 knots. The turbines were built in Austria. Austria as of 1911 had a battleship on order and forthcoming turbine driven destroyers and torpedo boats. Austria had also switched to steam turbines for its war ships.

Sweden and Denmark ordered their first turbine war ships, a 7,000 HP set designed to sail at 21 knot, a cruiser and a torpedo boat, each having 4,000 HP. Two more countries had gone for steam turbines by 1911.

Belgium did not have a war navy in 1911 but in 1905 completed the passenger ship the “Princesse Elilsabaeth” with Parsons steam turbines for passenger service between Ostend and Dover having a speed of 24.03 knots. Two other Parsons steam turbine powered merchant ships followed, the “Jan Breydel” and the “Pieter de Coninck” which were completed in 1910.  All countries were joining the steam turbine band wagon.

Brazil, on the other side of the Atlantic, embarked on a very energetic program in 1906, by having built two scout cruisers, the “Bahai” and the “Rio Grande do Sul” fitted with Parsons steam turbines having speeds of 27.016 and 27.412 knots respectively. Then came the steam turbine powered battleship the “Rio de Janeilro” equipped with the new combined impulse and reaction turbines.

Argentina in 1911 had four Parsons steam turbine powered destroyers under construction, the San Luis”, the Sante Fe the San Diego and the “Tucuman”, each with 20,000HP impulse and reaction steam turbines. These ships are to have speeds of 32 knots.

Peru by 1910 had two merchant vessels in service, the “Huallaga” and the “'Ucayali” with speed of 19 and 19.11 knots respectively.

China embarked on a steam turbine ship program by 1911 with two cruisers to be used to train officers and men. They were to have Parsons turbines and the ships were to have speeds of 20 knots.

The Colonies, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all had steam turbine ship programs. Australia had two torpedo boat destroyers that were already built in 1908 with the “Yara” having 11,212 HP and a top speed of 28.5 knots. A third one was under construction with pieces being shipped from England to Australia.

I have skimmed over what has been written in the book which covers many details, photos and drawings for those who might be interested in a specific ship or drive system. The point that is being made is that the whole world was taken in by the new Parsons steam turbine designs to drive ships of all different kinds, more economically and at a higher speed than was ever done before, thanks to Sir Charles A. Parsons. The way of traveling and fighting by sea had changed dramatically. The “Golden Age” of the steam ships had begun.

In his next article, the author writes about geared steam turbines and their applications.

Ivan G. Rice was past chairman of the South Texas Section of ASME (1974 - 75), past chairman of the ASME Gas Turbine Division (now IGTI) (1975 - 76). A Life Fellow Member of ASME and Life Member of NSPE/TSPE, he has authored many articles and ASME papers on gas turbines, inter-cooling, reheat, HRSGs, steam cooling and steam injection.

How modern day steam turbines came to be

Story of the first toy turbine

How Parsons marine steam turbines powered ships

Parsons turbine receives worldwide recognition