Wednesday 25 June 2014

எல்லீசன் கல்வெட்டு - An Englishman’s Tamil Inscription

For those who are accustomed to inscriptions by Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Hoysala and Vijayanagar and Nayaks, here is an Tamil inscription by an Englishman, Francis Whyte Ellis, who at the time was employed by the East India Company as Mint Supervisor in Madras. This stone slab was inscribed on a well in Madras. Ellis was somewhat forgotten, until recently rediscovered by Thomas Trautmann. The text below is taken from Mr Narasiah’s book மதராசபட்டினம். A photo of this slab is also found in Prof. Trautmann’s book, எல்லிசும் திராவிடச்சான்றும்,  a translation of his book ‘Ellis and the Dravidian Proof’.

The slab lay somewhat neglected in the Tirumalai Nayak Mahal Museum, in Madurai, until Mr Narasiah pointed out its importance and that of Ellis, upon which they had it mounted in its current place. In March this year, Mr Narasiah showed me around the Mahal, and you see a photo of him, and two wonderful museum officials (whom Mr Narasiah mesmerized with his detailed knowledge of the Mahal) with the slab that has Ellis’ inscription.

Museum officials, me, Narasiah

Narasiah pointing to line மயிலையம்பதியான்
Here's my simple translation of the later portion of the inscription. I’ll present the earlier portion of the inscription and my translation in a later blog.

சயங்கொண்ட தொண்டிய சாணுறு நாடெனும்

In Jayamkonda Thondiya Naadu (north Tamil Nadu, with Kanchipuram as capital, was called Thondai Naadu from the Sangam era. When the Cholas conquered it around 900 AD, they renamed it Jayam Konda Mandalam.)

ஆழியில் இழைத்த வழகுறு மாமணி
குணகடன் முதலாக குட கடலளவு
நெடுநிலம் தாழ நிமிர்ந்திடு சென்னப்

from western hills to eastern sea, like a jewel in the ocean, lies the city of Chennai pattanam

பட்டணத்து எல்லீசன் என்பவன் யானே

in which, I Elleesan, (Tamilization of Ellis!) reside

பண்டாரகாரிய பாரம் சுமக்கையில்

While employed as Mint Supervisor

புலவர்கள் பெருமான் மயிலையம் பதியான்
தெய்வப் புலமைத் திருவள்ளுவனார்
திருக்குறள் தன்னில் திருவுளம் பற்றிய்

As the divine poet Thiruvalluvar, of Mayilai Ampathi (Mylapore), famous for poets, in his Thirukural has stated

“இருபுனலும் வாய்ந்த மலையும் வருபுனலும்
வல்லரணும் நாட்டிற் குறுப்பு”

"Strong walls (val araN), standing water (iru punal i.e. lakes and wells), hills and flowing water (varu punal - i.e. rivers & streams), make for a good country"

என்பதின் பொருளை என்னுள் ஆய்ந்து

and having understood this poem

ஸ்வஸ்திஸ்ரீ சாலிவாகன சகாப்த ௵ 1740 செல்லாநின்ற 
இங்கிலிசு  1818ம் ஆண்டில்

In 1740 year of SvasthiSree Shaalivaahana calendar, in the English year 1818

பிரபவாதி ம்க்கு (வருஷத்திற்கு) மேற் செல்லாநின்ற
பஹுதான்ய த்தில் (வருஷத்தில்) வார திதி 
நக்ஷத்திர யோக கரணம் பார்த்து

In Bahuthaanya year, after the Prabhavati year, having consulted the auspicious signs: Weekday, Thithi, Nakshathra, Yoga and Karnam 

சுபதிநத்தி லிதனோ டிருபத்தேழு துரவு கண்டு 
புண்ணியாஹவாசநம் பண்ணுவித்தேன்

on an auspicious day, I have commissioned 27 wells.

I love the phrase ஆழியில் இழைத்த வழகுறு மாமணி. I cannot imagine a more beautiful phrase to describe any city, and how fitting that it was coined by a man, who proudly called himself Chennai Pattinaththu Elleesan.

PostScript, June 28: Mr Narasiah, via email, offers this translation by GU Pope, of the TirukkuraL verse mentioned above.

“இருபுனலும் வாய்த்த மலையும் வருபுனலும்
வல்லரணும் நாட்டிற் குறுப்பு”
Ch LXXIV Kural No. 7
G U Pope's translation:

Waters from rains and springs
      A mountain near, and waters thence;
Those make a land,
      With fortress' sure defence

Corrections June 22, 2020  Mr N Ganesan, of Houston Texas, has sent me the following text, of the last few verses in the above Ellis inscription. This has the proper grantham transliteration of the Sanskrit words in the Ellis inscription, including character   symbol for வருஷம்(yearand the correct ஶ for words like ஶாலிவாஹந (Shaalivaahana)He has also suggested some spelling corrections, which I have now effected in the Tamil text of the poem. 

ஸ்வஸ்திஶ்ரீ ஶாலிவாஹந ஶகாப்த ௵ 1740ச் செல்லாநின்ற இங்க்லிஸ் ௵ 1818ம் ஆண்டில் ப்ரபவாதி  ௵-ம்க்கு மேற்  செல்லாநின்ற பஹுதாந்ய ௵-த்தில் வார திதி நக்ஷத்ர யோக கரணம் பார்த்து ஶுப திநத்தி

Links (added June 28, 2020)

Ellis inscription - the meikeerthi of King George III

Saturday 14 June 2014

Charles Parsons and Turbines

Charles Parsons

We all grew up with the story that James Watt watched a tea kettle boil and invented the steam engine. Rarely do we wonder why the Chinese tea makers never invented a steam engine. In school books, we also read that Faraday discovered electricity or that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Even those of us who study physics or engineering later, rarely wonder why Faraday did not invent the light bulb. The nerdier, and more widely read people, know how vital Nikola Tesla’s experiments with Alternating Current were to the modern electrical world.

Of late, Tesla versus Edison has become a cult battle, with “kind, brilliant, public spirited” Tesla who wanted to make electricity free for the whole world winning hearts over cunning, capitalist, greedy, jealous, stubborn Edison, the latter approaching Voldemort in his villainy.
Ungrateful world. This is sad ignorance of basic economics and about Parsons and turbines. I would strongly recommend Vaclav Smil’s “Creating the Twentieth Century” to get a more realistic (and less cartoonish) perspective.

But today June 13, is Charles Algernon Parsons’ birthday, and since he is almost completely unknown to all but mechanical engineers, I’ll explain his vital role in making the modern world.

Edison invented the Electric Age (not just a working light bulb), the Spirit of Invention, the Corporate Research Lab, the Phonograph, ad infinitum. I rate Edison as the Man with the greatest impact and transformation of human history and civilization; not just the greatest inventor or engineer. The ones who surpassed him were the inventors of  Fire, Wheel, Agriculture, Cotton etc. whose names are lost in the mists of time. 

Energy and Transportation

Edison massively influenced Energy but not Transportation. James Watt’s steam engine influenced both, and there would be no Electric Age without steam engines – as coal fired power plants.

So did Parsons – his turbines are vital:
  1. For electric power – 75% of the world’s power is generated by steam turbines (not steam engines) in coal and nuclear power plants.
  2. In jet aircraft engines and large ships
  3. For powering the compressors used in the Haber-Bosch process, which helps feed the world.

Engines versus Turbines

Not being a mechanical engineer, and not having read much on engineering until recently, I didn't properly understand the difference between engines and turbines, and how much more efficient the latter are, until I read Vaclav Smil’s book Creating the Twentieth Century. And I did not realize how vital turbines are until I read his other book Prime Movers of Globalization – here is Bill Gates’ somewhat concise review of Smil's book.

James Watt did not invent the steam engine. Others like Savery and Newcomen made working steam engines before him. Their engines are atmospheric engines. Steam pushed up the pistons in their cylinders, but then the whole cylinder was cooled, the steam condensed, and then the piston fell down due to atmospheric pressure pushing downwards. 


Watt’s great breakthrough was to devise an external condenser, which made the steam engine efficient and useful, and to invent several instruments which helped to incrementally improve the steam engine. Also Watt built stationary steam engines, which replaced water mills as power sources in factories. He never built a steam locomotive, as in railways.

Richard Trevithick, George Stephenson and others increased its mass/power output ratio, leading to railways and cheap transportation as we know it. But these are reciprocating engines and still use steam power inefficiently. 

Fundamentally, a steam turbine is a specialized steam engine, which doesn’t have a piston, but has multi stage rotors and stators. Steam engines use the pressure of the steam to move the piston – which is the mechanical work. Turbines, also utilize the velocity and pressure to do the mechanical work. High pressure steam powers rotors blades, arranged in a circle around a central axis. The steam flows through these rotors after having propelled them and goes through a set of stators, which constrict the steam thus increasing its velocity. This steam passes through a second set of rotors and stators, then a third set and so on until it no longer has significant pressure to do much mechanical work. Thus turbines are phenomenally more efficient than piston-based engines.

Compound Turbine - Flow of Steam and Working method

Water turbines and windmills had been in existence for centuries. But the metal blades that could withstand the pressure of steam were far beyond the metallurgical capabilities of any country in Europe, or even Britain its leading industrial power, until the invention of Bessemer steel in the 1850s. The velocity of even low pressure steam is calculated as 2500 feet per second or 1700 miles per hour. At those speeds, centrifugal force would tear apart any metal blade used as a rotor. Even James Watt knew this, and expressed it thus when his partners wondered if their business would face competition from steam turbines: “Without God makes it possible for things to move at 1000 feet per second, it cannot do much harm.”

The Parsons Turbines

Bessemer steel and improvements in metallurgy and science changed that. In 1882, Gustaf Patrick de Laval made an impulse steam turbine. And in 1885, Charles Parsons made a small turbine producing 7.5KW.  Parsons’ key insight was to slow down the speed of the jet of steam in a series of steps, each partial drop of pressure being sufficient to power rotor blades that wouldn’t fall apart under the high speed. The principle of subdividing the velocity of steam into a series of steps, so that only moderate speeds are produced, remains the basis of all efficient turbine design.

First Parsons had to invent a new type of blade for the rotors, which would not collapse in a turbine operating fifty times faster than the reciprocating eninges of the time. He had to invent methods to manufacture these blades. Parsons also invented new types of bearings, to handle long rotors to function without damage from vibration at high speeds. He invented a way to continuously lubricate these bearings. Besides stages of rotors, he also invented midway inlet, into the casing of the turbine, so steam would flow in both directions. Subsequently he invented dummy pistons, which rendered double flow princinple unnecessary for smaller turbines.

Parsons revolutionized the efficient use of steam on a scale that neither Trevithick nor Stephenson could have imagined. The power of steam was multiplied a hundredfold. It affected not merely the size and scale of transportation, but also electric power generation and other industries in unthinkable ways.

When Edison dazzled the US with his Electric Lighting in 1879, he used a steam engine to generate power. As Smil rightly notes, it is the total design and planning of the electrical system needed to bring electric lighting, that was Edison’s giant transformation of the world. Edison’s use of DC, Tesla’s advocacy of AC, and Westinghouse’s triumph are well known to those who know the history of electricity. But Parsons’ role, and the role of steam turbines, is not properly understood; usually unknown, except to mechanical engineers.

Alternating current is what enables cheap distribution of electricity. Without AC (or transformers), we would need power plants every few miles. Imagine the pollution, the logistics, the cost!

But AC only improves distribution, not the production of power. Here Tesla’s role ends. Early steam engines produced very little power for the amount of coal used. Steam turbines not only delivered more power, but massively improved the output per amount of coal used, as this table shows. Steam engines between 1890 and 1904 showed maximum thermal efficiency of 11-17%. It made no sense, economic or engineering, to install steam engines, rather than turbines, after 1902, says Smil.

Year Turbine Power in KW Efficiency in %
1885 7 1.6
1888 75 5.0
1899 1000 25.0
1912 2500 75.0

I have left out the delightful story of Parson’s ship SS Turbinia, his stunt during a naval parade, and its impact on the British Navy, and later all shipping. 

This essay mainly outlines the impact of Parsons' improvements to turbine design and manufacture and their critical importance to the modern world. For more details on the engineering aspects of his work, and a brief biography, please read this.

Note: I edited this on September 17, 2021 by adding a few paragraphs about some components of turbine design.


Creating the Twentieth Century, by Vaclav Smil

How a turbine works

The Steam Turbine and other inventions of Sir Charles Parsons, by R.H. Parsons

Westinghouse or Tesla – who should we credit for Alternating Current : Kathy Joseph’s video 

Related blogs

I had earlier blogged in Tamil about Vaclav Smil on Edison.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Powerpoint Literature

We think of epics, poems, grand novels, perhaps great plays, as literature. The earliest literature was usually oral and set down in writing, after writing was invented. Of the world’s  6000 languages, very few have a script, even fewer boast of written literature, and barely a dozen are classical. The globalizations of paper, and literacy, and most recently, computers, have given rise to new forms of writing, and new versions of literature. 

Detective stories, science fiction, comics, newspaper essays are the great new forms of literature of the last 200 years. Advertisements and roadside banners will someday be stride the worlds of literature and art. In a speech, Tiruppur Krishnan, editor of the magazine AmudhaSurabhi, lauded the Question and Answer section in Tamil magazines as a form of literature.

SMS, blogs and tweets, the latest entrants to the field of writing, are often criticized as ruining the felicity, grammar and spelling of languages; but some are already more famous than most books, poems, plays or speeches.

I propose PowerPoint presentations as a form of literature. Specifically, the works of Swaminathan, retired IIT Delhi professor and founder of the Tamil Heritage Trust.

Most Powerpoints are a slapdash of ideas, themes, photos, doodles, graphs and tables. They are meant to be supplement the speaker, or his message. They seem primarily a business tool or a teaching aid. Rarely are they works of art, to be savored for themselves. This is where I believe Prof Swaminathan’s PowerPoint presentations stand out.

Topic They are about art, language, culture, heritage, history. Not business or technical education.

Structure They have an introduction, a theme, sections, and a flow of narrative.

Purpose They are meant to inspire you to discover what they discuss, perhaps visit the monuments described, or the history narrated or in some way get involved in the subject.

Elegance Photos, words, numbers, tables are presented in an elegant, inherently beautiful way. In the last few years I have learn something about the use of space in an artistic composition, its tone and balance. He uses space superbly and there is an inherent balance to the slides. The choice of colors for the text, the location of a photo, what feature is highlighted, and how each aspect is explained is marvelous. I’ll explain below with images.

Usage Here is the killer touch. Unlike most PowerPoints, you can go through them on your computer, without his assistance or commentary, because they are complete and self-explanatory.

It is in these two aspects, Elegance and Usage, that I believe his presentations transcend the plane of ordinariness and ascend to literature.

Take this slide, from his presentation on Indian Musical Heritage. He has compactly represented the Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni Sa notes with first letters, in upper case. By subtly using lower case letters, he has also shown that there are 12 svaras, not 7 in Carnatic music, 5 of which are considered slight variations. A touch of grace is added by the yellow sketch in the corner.

In a later slide, he explains the Sankara-bharanam raga, uses a piano keyboard layout to show the various svaras of the Sankarabhranam raga.  He compares them to other forms of classical music, namely Ancient Greek, Western Classical, Hindustani, and Ancient Tamil. The yellow sketch in the corner gives a feel of continuity to this theme.

In a presentation on the Pallava cave temple in Rockfort, Tiruchi, he uses other similar sculptures to compare and contrast. The Gangadhara panel in Elephanta is used first, highlighting the position of descending Ganga, devoted Bhageeratha, coy Parvati, and various other Gods. The use of alternating colors in the text and faded background sculpture are typical. The text here is simple and descriptive.

Whereas, the text in this slide is concise and very informative. You are informed that this is the earliest Gangadhara in Tamilnadu. The composition is described as a puzzle. The further slides explain the puzzle.

Another aspect is the effort he takes in preparing very illustrative slides. Take this from Oral Tradition of Sanskrit. The title alone should pique one's curiosity. But the presentation here is well thought out. First the sloka; then the individual letters of the sloka, grouped by verse; then syllables with the letters L & H showing which is Light (laghu) and which is Heavy (guru). This technique brilliantly illustrates the intricacy of candas, i.e. metres of Vedic poems.

From his Story of Scripts, the first series I had the pleasure of attending in 2008, this slide introduces Brahmi and Kharoshti, the two oldest known scripts of Sanskrit. Here he uses a story telling technique: foreshadowing. The gold coin in the upper right corner contains a Kharoshti inscription. The entire border of the slide on all four sides are filled with segments of Brahmi script. Note again the brilliant use of space. The text is sparse and powerful.

As a final example, consider this one. The Brahmi border continues. The background subtly shows the showcased script. The vattezhuthu, which is unfamiliar to most people, is shown letter by letter, with the modern Tamil and Roman characters in corresponding places.

I have merely used the slides in a demonstrative manner. They are best seen and understood, in proper context. Two of his masterpieces are the presentations on Mamallapuram and Ajanta. I have included the PowerShow links to his presentations, but you can login to GMail with 

UserID: mamallai
Password : swaminathan

to download his PPTs.

Email him at for more information. Or regularly attend our programs. Best of all, catch him in person: this week (November 2014), he will be presenting a lecture on Pudukottai monuments, at 4pm at Tamil Virtual Academy, Kotturpuram, Chennai.

Links to Prof Swaminathan's Powerpoints

  1. Mahabalipuram Monuments - Part 1 (Introduction) 
  2. Ajanta – An overview
  3. Story of scripts – Part 2 Sumerian Cuneiform
  4. Sittannavasal monuments 
  5. Ajanta - Mahajanaka Jataka