The Turbina Steamship and a mystery in the archives … – March 2016

I’ve always found this letter fascinating.  If anyone fancies doing some further research on this letter, do let us know what your results are!

This letter of reference is an intriguing insight into the mathematics behind the construction of Newcastle’s famous ‘Turbinia’ steamship, which can still be seen in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne.  Who is this (female) mathematician, who seems to get little mention in the history of the Turbinia?  Perhaps as a sign of the times, this letter, which appears to be a reference, is addressed to her father and does not refer personally to her by name at all.  Dr G Johnstone Stoney had three daughters (who led fascinating lives in their own right in the fields of science and medicine), I would love to know which one came to Newcastle and made such an important contribution to this part of North East history.



The Turbina was an experimental vessel built by Charles Parsons to demonstrate the benefits of his revolutionary new design of steam turbines.  Built by the firm of Brown and Hood, based at Wallsend on Tyne it started to undergo speed trials in 1896 and the results were pretty spectacular.  By December an average speed of 29.6 knots had been reached over the measured mile whilst, with further improved propellers, 32.76 knots was achieved by April of the following year.  Eventually, maximum speeds of over 34 knots were recorded.  At the time it was easily the fastest ship in the world.

Obviously with a great eye for publicity, Parsons caused quite a stir when the Turbina appeared at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Naval Review at Spithead, apparently racing between the two lines of navy ships and steaming up and down in front of the crowd.  Popular legend had her appearance as unannounced; it would seem that Parsons did have permission, although perhaps the organisers did not expect such a dramatic entry!

If you are interested in coming into the reading room to see this letter …
# This item is held within the Manuscript Album (Ref Code GB186/MSA).
# You can place your order by linking to our request form. The reference code and title will be ‘GB186/MSA/2/22 Letter from Charles Algernon Parsons to George Johnstone Stoney concerning mathematical work undertaken by one of Stoney’s daughters.’

To see the ship (and its turbines!) and much more …
The Discovery Museum is close to Newcastle upon Tyne rail station and has many gems

Thanks to the Discovery Museum for providing the backstory of the Turbina,

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