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Perceval Moses Parsons

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Perceval Moses Parsons (1819-1892)

Son of John Parsons

1843 Mr Percival M. Parsons, Civil engineer of 34 Cranmer Place, Waterloo Bridge, London. Parsons and Bunning developed an expansive apparatus for steam locomotives.

1851 Perceval M. Parsons, C.E., 6 Duke Street, Adelphi, exhibited a railway "switch" and other railway equipment at the Great Exhibition

1851 Married Anne Jane Rexford at St Alphege, Greenwich[1]

1862 Inventor of railway "switch". 9 Arthur Street West, London Bridge.

1876 Patent on the manufacture of Manganese Bronze[2].

Established business P. M. Parsons


1892 Obituary [3]

PERCEVAL M. PARSONS, who died at his residence, Melbourne House, Blackheath, in November 1892, at the age of seventy-three years, was chiefly known for his patents for, improvements in ordnance, several of which were adopted by the War Office, and more recently as the inventor of manganese bronze, an alloy now very extensively used on account of its great strength. He had from first to last introduced a number of inventions to public notice, amongst his ordnance inventions being a system of inserting rifled steel tubes into the then useless old cast-iron guns, with a view to making them serviceable, and a bolt for fish and armour plates, which was favourably reported upon in England, and was adopted by the Russian Government, as well as other inventions and proposals.

When he had satisfied himself, in 1860, that his proposed system of providing new liners would render the old cast-iron guns available for service, Mr. Parsons laid his invention before the Ordnance Committee, who made an attempt to carry it out; but they did not report favourably on it, and, believing that his invention had been rejected, Mr. Parsons allowed his patent to lapse. In 1862, Captain Palliser patented an almost similar system of converting guns, which the Ordnance Committee finally adopted. Mr. Parsons thereupon put in his claim to be the original inventor of the system, and, after much effort to secure a recognition of his rights, he received from the War Office a certain amount of compensation, Mr. Charles Hutton Gregory, to whom the matter was referred, having, as arbitrator, decided that the claims of Mr. Parsons were just and equitable.

Proposals were at an early date submitted by Mr. Parsons for the construction of a central London railway, which was to follow very nearly the course of the present Metropolitan District line, and to have connections with most of the other Metropolitan systems. One feature of the scheme was to be the construction of a large central station on the present site of the Embankment Gardens, with platforms for each of the chief companies. Robert Stephenson approved the proposal, and accepted the position of consulting engineer, while Mr. John (afterwards Sir John) Hawkshaw was to be the chief engineer, and Messrs. Parsons and Berkley were to be the acting engineers. But the scheme was never carried out, mainly because the attention of the public was diverted, by the Crimean war and other matters then pending, to other forms of enterprise.

Mr. Parsons was a son of Mr. John Parsons of Scraptoft, Leicestershire, and received his early education from the Rev. J. Dallen, of Shooter's Hill, Kent. He afterwards studied for two years at Portsmouth Dockyard, and thence proceeded to London, where he was articled to Messrs. Braithwaite & Milnes. Having been employed on engineering work for a time - first with Mr. John Rennie, and afterwards with Mr. Peter Bruff - he undertook to make the surveys on a branch line of the Eastern Counties Railway, and finally set up in London on his own account as an engineer. He was a man of very honourable and straightforward character, and had many friends.


1892 Obituary[4]



1893 Obituary [5]

PERCEVAL MOSES PARSONS was an engineer well known for his mechanical skill and experience, for his inventive ability and for some happy practical discoveries in metallurgy.

His father was Mr. John Parsons, of Scraptoft House, Leicestershire; he was born in London in 1819 and was educated at a private school near Blackheath, in which neighbourhood he from old associations afterwards resided from his marriage until his death.

Having shown an early aptitude for mechanical pursuits, he was placed when only fifteen years old under the Chief Engineer of Portsmouth Dockyard ; and this experiment proving satisfactory he was regularly articled in 1836 to the well-known engineering firm of Braithwaite, Milner and Co, where he remained until he was of age.

It was thought desirable that he should see something of railway works, at that time becoming so popular and extensive, and in 1841. he enlisted as assistant to P. S. Bruff, the Engineer of the Eastern Counties Railway. Here he remained till 1845, actively engaged in laying out and superintending the construction of works and in the other duties of a Resident Engineer.

In 1846 he returned for a short time to mechanical work as Assistant Engineer to J. and G. Rennie at Blackfriars, after which he put his mechanical knowledge to good practical use by undertaking the important post, of Superintendent of the large fixed plant and machinery on the Eastern Union Railway.

In 1850 Mr. Parsons went into business on his own account and was soon successfully engaged on various engineering works chiefly connected with railways and their appliances, too numerous to specify. It must suffice to mention some few of his most interesting occupations. His attention had become specially directed to the design and construction of railway fittings ; he saw their defects and his ingenious and inventive mind soon led him to devise ameliorations and improvements. His earliest efforts in this way were to take out patents1 for improved switches and axle-boxes, which he worked at first in his own office with the aid of friends. But afterwards there was formed a small association of engineers, called the Permanent Way Co, with the special object of working patents for railway appliances and apparatus. This Company became well-known and supported among railway interests and Mr. Parsons connected himself with it, several other patents for railway appliances being afterwards taken out by him.

In 1853 he designed a great scheme for the railway accommodation of the Metropolis. To understand the merits of this scheme it must be recollected that at that time there were no Metropolitan, nor District, nor North London local lines, no stations at Charing Cross or Cannon Street, nor was the Thames Embankment in existence; the termini of the various lines running into London were wide apart from each other and no railway communication whatever existed between the two banks of the River. Mr. Parsons’ proposal was sufficiently indicated by the title of a pamphlet he published, which ran as follows :-

PROPOSED LONDON RAILWAY to afford direct Railway Communication between the City and Westminster, and all the Western Suburbs, including Pimlico, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Brompton, Kensington, Hammersmith, Bayswater, Notting Hill, Shepherd’s Bush, Turnham Green, Chiswick, Brentford, Kew, &C., &C.; and to unite the whole of the existing Metropolitan Railways, both North and South of the Thames, and provide them with a general Central Station.

This central station was the great feature; it was proposed to be laid out on a very ample scale on the north bank of the Thames near Charing Cross, behind Northumberland House. From this station lines were to diverge - l. Westward and north-westward, through Pimlico, Brompton and Kensington, joining the Great Western and North Western Railways. 2. South-westward, crossing the river to the South Western Line. 3. Eastward, for some distance along the north coast of the river and then passing through the City to the Great Eastern and Great Northern Railways; and 4. South-eastward, crossing the river to the South Eastern and Brighton Lines.

The portions through populous districts were to be partly tunnelled and partly elevated, according to circumstances, and the whole was estimated to cost three millions sterling. Mr. Parsons wisely endeavoured to interest engineers of high standing in the scheme and succeeded in inducing Robert Stephenson to give his support as Consulting Engineer and Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Hawkshaw as joint acting Engineer with himself. At one time the scheme appeared promising, but the Crimean War stopped any immediate proceedings and when this was over other proposals, of less wide pretensions, were put forward, and various circumstances interfered with the further prosecution of the scheme, which indeed was probably in advance of the time. But it may be questioned whether, if some such comprehensive measure had been adopted, the Metropolis might not have been saved much of the difficulty since experienced in its railway communications.

Mr. Parsons was, unfortunately, a sufferer from the almost universal delusion of clever inventors, namely, the idea that if they can do anything which is of great public benefit, the authorities will patronize and reward them. One of the most common forms of this hallucination refers to improvements in implements of warfare and Mr. Parsons was stricken with this form of the mania. It was about the period when rifled cannon were fast superseding the old smooth bores and it occurred to him that he might save the country great loss if he could find means of changing the old form into the new.

In 1855 therefore he took out a patent for converting the old cast-iron artillery into rifled guns, by boring them out and inserting a steel tube. The work in connection with this invention and his attempt to obtain its adoption by Government occupied some eight or ten of the best years of his life and ran away with an enormous sum of money. The affair was complicated by a claim of Major, afterwards Sir William Palliser for a similar invention, and Mr. Parsons was left unrecognised. At a later period, after great endeavour, he succeeded in getting an official inquiry, and the matter was referred to Mr. (now Sir) Charles Hutton Gregory. Judgement was given in Mr. Parsons’ favour, and he was awarded the very inadequate compensation of £1,000. Full particulars of this invention and the proceedings consequent thereon will be found in the engineering journals of the period. A pamphlet he wrote in 1863 on 'Guns versus Armour Plates' may be found in the library of the Institution.

In February, 1867, he patented an improvement in bolts; the experiments of the Armour Committee had brought to light the apparent paradox that by reducing the quantity of metal in certain parts of bolts they were made better able to resist shocks without fracture, and Mr. Parsons utilized this principle in several ingenious ways. Some experiments in 1868 at Shoeburyness on the 'Millwall shield,' fitted with these bolts, proved their advantages.

In 1871 he accepted the appointment of Engineer to the Bessemer Steel and Ordnance Co and superintended the erection of the whole of the Company’s new works at East Greenwich, an occupation which lasted for two years.

The question of the guns appears to have turned Mr. Parsons’ attention to the study of the use of metals generally, and his experience with machinery had shown him the importance of the arrangements for shaft-bearings and other rubbing-surfaces, for which ordinarily 'gun-metal' (an alloy of copper and tin) had been used. He thought he could improve on this and, having established a private mechanical laboratory at his house at Blackheath, he tried a great number of experiments with different metals, and ultimately produced a better compound of copper, tin, zinc and lead, called 'white brass,' which is now largely used, especially for marine engines.

His success led him to search for another metallurgical desideratum, namely, a material which, while it approached steel in strength, should be free from the liability to corrosion inseparable from all preparations of iron. After some years’ experimenting he produced what is called 'manganese bronze,' prepared by combining ferro-manganese with bronze and brass alloys, in different ways according to the purposes required. There was at first some difficulty in getting it known and introduced, but it was at length taken up by a company, the commercial result of which has testified sufficiently to the useful character of the invention.

It is in large use for the propellers of steamers and in other cases where strength and durability are required in combination. As evidence of the fertility of Mr. Parsons’ inventive power, it may be mentioned that between 1851 and 1889 he took out no less than 52 patents, of which 19 had to do with artillery and warlike appliances, 11 with railway apparatus, 1 with metallurgy, and the remainder with miscellaneous subjects.

Mr. Parsons died very suddenly, from an attack of apoplexy, on the 5th of November, 1892. He had married in 1851 a daughter of Mr. Rexford, of Greenwich, who survives him with eleven children.

He was elected a Member of the Institution on the 2nd of December, 1873.


1892 Obituary [6]



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