How Steam Technology Works

The Steam Turbine

In the 1830s, British physicist Michael Faraday created an early electric generator called the dynamo. Other inventors soon set out to perfect a method by which a steam engine could create the rotary motion necessary to produce electricity. They soon discovered that there was a limit to the number of revolutions per minute a steam-driven piston could provide. But the solution to this problem was to be found, ironically enough, in the very technology Hero proposed in A.D. 75: the steam turbine.

Whereas Hero's steam turbine called for steam to be jetted from the perimeter of the object to be rotated, early 19th century engineers proposed directing steam straight onto blades attached to the perimeter of a wheel. However, steel was not yet strong enough to hold up to the stress of such rapid rotation. In 1884, British engineer Charles Algernon Parsons put new steel technology to use. He created a turbine capable of using compounded steam that turned a dynamo at 18,000 revolutions a minute. In 1890, his steam turbine and accompanying electric generator were installed in the Forth Banks power station. The technology soon spread through Europe.


Parsons also applied his steam turbine technology to naval purposes, introducing his vessel, Turbinia, at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Parsons was subsequently commissioned to fit a Royal Navy destroyer with a turbine engine.

In the next section, we'll look at modern advancements in steam turbine technology.