I was delighted last month when, during the penultimate week of my leadership of Catalyst Inc, we hosted the formal handover of this year’s Parsons Medal to Professor Sir John McCanny CBE FRS FREng FIAE FIAE of Queen’s University Belfast. John and I go way back to the very beginning of our careers as they evolved between Britain and Ireland and it has been an absolute delight to complete the last decade or two with him as he developed in stature as he succeeded with his vision for a new kind of research Institute, ECIT/CSIT, which became the research flagships of Catalyst Inc.
The ceremony took place on board HMS Caroline, a C-class light cruiser that saw action at the Battle of Jutland, the only major naval action of WW1, and protected trade during WW1 by patrolling the North Sea. She also played a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic in WW2. HMS Caroline is the only remaining WW1 light cruiser still afloat, is the sole survivor of the Battle of Jutland, and has been fully restored to her former glory for public viewing.
Why? Well, for one, it marked an excellent double full stop for us both because, it was exactly in the same place that NI Science Park Foundation was launched some 18 years ago.
For a second and even more important reason, Parsons is the family name of the Earl of Rosse of Birr Castle and HMS Caroline was powered by four Parsons steam turbines – invented by Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, eminent Irish engineer, and illustrious forebear of the Rosse family and the reason they bequeathed this medal.
Charles was the son of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse KP PRS HFRSE was an Anglo-Irish astronomer who had several telescopes built. His 72-inch telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known as the "Leviathan of Parsonstown", was the world's largest telescope, in terms of aperture size, until the early 20th century. With it he settled the nature of nebulae among other things. Less known, is that while he was the passionate astronomer and designer of the telescope, his wife was the engineer. Between them, they “pivoted” Thomas Grubb’s Dublin company from local billiard table maker to global telescope maker. You can see his later work at the Observatory in Armagh but also in other observatories worldwide, including Aldershot Observatory, Melbourne, Vienna, Madrid and Mecca.
In 1925, Charles bought the Grubb company in memory of his mother and it was renamed Grubb Parsons, where the name intersects the career of a young Apsley who had occasion to use a Grubb Parsons spectrometer more than once in his researches.
But I get ahead of the story because, while as we look back the rationale for the steam turbine seems incontrovertible, Charles had to risk censure and even jail to get his ideas adopted by the Royal Navy. With his turbine powered yacht, he ran amok during one of Queen Victoria’s navel reviews, after many no doubt polite refusals to view the technology. The doughty Royal unusually declared herself amused and the technology got adopted.
So his descendant, the Earl of Rosse, Sir Brendan Parsons came to present Sir John with his medal, a worthy winner in all respects!
Not just genius in science, nor just in engineering and manufacturing but also in sales and marketing and all that goes with a successful global enterprise. That is why we make a fuss of him and his successors. This is truly what jobs are made of; not a gift of government but the consequence of genius and grit!