Thomas Parker - Obituaries

From the Institute of Mechanical Engineers:

THOMAS PARKER was born at Ironbridge, Shropshire, on 22nd December 1843.

He received his early education at the Quakers' School at Coalbrookdale, and at the age of nine and a half years entered the works of the Coalbrookdale Co., where his talent for engineering revealed itself while he was yet a boy. He was a regular attendant at the evening classes provided by the Company for the benefit of employees. At the age of nineteen he undertook work in Birmingham, where he continued to attend evening classes.

In 1866 he went to Manchester for further scientific study, and then returned to Coalbrookdale, where he re-entered the employ of the Company. In 1876 he was put in charge of the chemical and electro-depositing departments of the Company's works; during this period he built a dynamo, brought out a steam-pump, and designed the "Kyrle" grate, for which he was awarded a medal at the Smoke Abatement Exhibition held in 1880. He was subsequently appointed manager of the engineering department of the works.

In 1882 he and Mr. Elwell entered into a partnership in Wolverhampton which in 1884 developed into the firm of Elwell, Parker and Co., Ltd. They produced accumulators, dynamos and electrical plant in general; several of Mr. Parker's inventions were brought out by the firm and enjoyed a deserved success.

In 1889 this Company was merged in the Electric Construction Co., Ltd., to which he was appointed engineer and manager. During the five years he remained with this firm he planned and erected the works at Bushbury for the manufacture of heavy electrical plant, and carried out numerous important works in electrical lighting and electric traction at various places. Among these may be mentioned the Liverpool Overhead Railway, electric lighting installations for Oxford and Burnley, and a traction system in South Staffordshire.

On leaving the Company he practised for some time as a private consulting engineer. Perhaps his most important work was the electrification of the Metropolitan Railway, completed in 1905.

He was a strong advocate of the decimal system, but maintained that the metre and the decimetre were both too large as units of measurement, while the centimetre and millimetre were too small. In his opinion, the ideal unit of measurement was the inch, and this view was supported by his discovery that a cubic inch of water at 122° F. weighs exactly 250 grains, so that 4 cubic inches weigh 1,000 grains.

He died at Ironbridge on 5th December 1915, in his seventy-second year.

He was elected a Member of this Institution in 1891. He was also a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Governor of Birmingham University, and a Justice of the Peace for the County of Shropshire and the Borough of Wolverhampton.

An obituary from The Engineer magazine, 10th December, 1915.

Obituary – Thomas Parker

Few engineers have travelled in so many and such varied paths as did Mr. Thomas Parker, whose death occurred at his home at Ironbridge in Shropshire on the 5th inst. He was a man of very many interests and diversified talents, and by his death the engineering profession is undoubtedly the poorer.

Thomas Parker was the son of the late Mr. T. W. Parker and was born on Lincoln Hill, Coalbrookdale, on December 22nd, 1843. He had therefore all but completed his seventy second year. His early education was received at the Quakers' School at Coalbrookdale, and after leaving that institution, which he did when he was still quite a young boy, he entered the works of the Coalbrookdale Company.

When twenty three years of age, he went to Manchester to complete his technical studies, and on his return he again entered the works of the Coalbrookdale Company, where he was made foreman of a portion of the foundry. Later on he was given charge of the chemical and electro-depositing departments. Finally he was promoted to be the manager of the engineering portion of the works. It was while he was in charge of the electro-depositing department that he made some discoveries in connection with electric storage batteries, which eventually led to his starting business in Wolverhampton on his own account in partnership with Mr. P. B. Elwell under the title of Elwell-Parker Limited. The original intention of the firm, which was constituted in 1882, was only to make accumulators which embodied Mr. Parker's discoveries and improvements, but it was not long before the production of dynamos was undertaken and the Elwell-Parker machines enjoyed a well-merited popularity, and finally the output of the firm included nearly everything electrical.

Electric traction appealed to Mr. Parker from the very first. He had foreseen its possibilities long before any actual work was carried out, and he was among the pioneers when operations were actually commenced. He was responsible for the design of the electrical plant for the tramway along the front at Blackpool, which was one of the first electric lines in this country to be worked, and was we believe, the very first electric line to employ a slotted system. The positive conductor was contained in the slot and consisted of two curved copper plates arranged side by side in the horizontal plane and parallel to one another, the current collector, which consisted of two brass rubbers connected together by brass rods, being arranged to drop down the slot at street level and take up its place between the two conductors so that one rubber would press on one and one on the other. The return was through the rails. It was by no means a perfect system, but for a long while it operated wonderfully well considering all things and having regard to the fact that in heavy winds for which Blackpool is famous, the sand from the beach not infrequently was blown in clouds onto the roadway and invaded the conduit, into which, also, it was by no means an unknown thing for sea water to find its way in quantity. Mr. Parker remained the consulting engineer to this tramway until it was taken over by the Corporation, which happened about the year 1893.

Another of Mr. Parker's early ventures in electric propulsion was the design of an electric locomotive, which, was so successful on its trials that, as a consequence, the Birmingham and Bournbrook tramway was constructed. Later on he, or rather his firm was the contractor for the electric equipment of the Liverpool Overhead Railway; and he himself was responsible for the design of much of the plant used. His great electric traction work was however the electrification of the Metropolitan Railway, which was completed in 1905 and was a success from the very first. The undertaking, including the power house at Neasden, which embodied several departures from preceding practice, was described in various of our issues in February, March, and December of the previous year.

Electro-traction, however, by no means formed the sum of Mr. Parker's activities. He was part inventor of the Parker and Weston steam pump; he was interested in the use of electricity for the extraction and refining of metals, particularly of gold, silver, and copper; he devised a process into the working of which electricity also entered, for the production of phosphorous; and he invented one of the first slow combustion stoves which were produced. For the latter, which was known by the name of ‘Kyrle’, he obtained a medal at the Smoke Abatement Exhibition in London of 1880.

Considerably later he took out a patent for the production of a smokeless fuel which he named Coalite. This was produced by the partial distillation of coal at a temperature considerably below that employed in the production of gas and ordinary coke, and the substance, which created a good deal of sensation when it was first introduced, burnt with a clear flame, giving out a considerable amount of heat.

The business of the Elwell-Parker company was in 1888 sold to the Electric Construction Corporation of Wolverhampton, and of the latter Mr. Parker was engineer and manager for five years, and planned and erected the works at Bushbury. During his connection with this firm he designed, in addition to the Liverpool Overhead Railway plant, the electric lighting installations for Oxford and Burnley, and a traction system in South Staffordshire. On the termination of his agreement with the Corporation he and others founded the electric business of Thomas Parker, Limited, of Wolverhampton, now the Rees Roturbo Manufacturing Company, Limited, but he severed his connection with that firm a good many years ago.

One other point should be mentioned. Mr. Parker was by no means an admirer of the metre as a unit. He considered that not only was it too large but, that the decimetre was also, while the centimetre and the millimetre were too small. So, though he was a strenuous advocate of the decimal system, he was not of the metric. He always maintained that the inch was an ideal unit and lost no opportunity of endeavouring to impress his views on the minds of other people. After a lot of investigation he discovered, as he once said, to his great delight, that a cubic inch of water at a temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit weighed exactly 250 grains, so that four cubic inches weighed exactly 1,000 grains. This strengthened his position, for it at once afforded a means of placing our cumbrous weights and measures systems on a decimal basis. He was an untiring apostle for his cause and wrote much on the subject.

Mr. Parker was a Justice of the Peace for the County of Shropshire and the Borough of Wolverhampton, and a member of the three Institutions, Civil, Mechanical and Electrical, and was awarded the Stephenson Medal and the Telford Premium of the first-named in the session 1893-4. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was a Governor of Birmingham University.

Return to the
previous page