Thomas Parker MIEE and the Olympic Games in the Nineteenth Century

The connections between engineering and the early foundations of the modern Olympics

It is easy to understand when visiting the London 2012 Olympics how modern engineers have been involved in everything from the trains to the buildings and infrastructure of the park. But the history of connections between the Olympic Games and members of the Institution of Engineering & Technology lead way back to the early foundations of the modern Olympic movement.  

Wenlock, the 2012 Olympic mascot is named in honour of The Wenlock Olympic Games. These Games were established in the borough of Wenlock, Shropshire from 1850 and by 1880 (under the leadership of William Penny Brookes) the Games had gained an international reputation. In 1890 Baron Pierre De Coubertin visited and subsequently produced two articles about Wenlock as part of his campaign to create the modern Olympic movement. He invited Brookes to the Paris conference in 1894 but sadly Brookes died in four months  before the first modern Olympic Games of 1896; De Coubertin described him as inspirational.

Thomas Parker MIEE

Thomas Parker MIEE (born 1843, died 1915) In 1843 Thomas Parker was born at Ironbridge in the Borough of Wenlock. In the same way that the Wenlock Olympics were not well known for many years, the engineering achievements of Thomas Parker didn’t achieve the full recognition they deserved.

Thomas joined the famous Coalbrookdale Company as an apprentice before moving around for a few years to develop his career and education, including spells in Birmingham Manchester and the Potteries before returning to the area in 1867. Thomas soon became a committee member of the Wenlock Liberal Association of which William Penny Brookes was also a keen supporter.

By 1880 Thomas had patents for the Parker Weston Steam Pump and the Kyrle Grate. In 1882 he patented an improvement to the Plante Lead-Acid Cell which created a portable battery with sufficient energy capacity for vehicle use. He is also credited by some as the inventor of the first practical production electric car in 1884, although others had created crude prototypes by then. By the time he was elected to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the IET) in 1885 he had founded the Elwell Parker company and been appointed Consulting Engineer for the electrification of the Blackpool Tram System. Between 1884 and 1887 14 patents were granted mostly for alternators and dynamos before merging with others to become the Electric construction company in 1889 Thomas subsequently joined both the Institutions of Civil and Mechanical Engineers.

In 1897 he was one of the seven original subscribers to the £200,000 capital of the Midland Electric Corporation, the first large scale electricity company with statutory powers.  

Thomas’s last job before retiring back to Shropshire bring us back to our Olympic  connections as he electrified the London Underground, as Consulting Engineer and subsequently as a director of the Metropolitan Railway. Also at this late stage he is credited with inventing Coalite, the leading smokeless fuel for the next hundred years, probably to help his son with a business opportunity.

My interest in Thomas stems from discovering two connections, we were both born and grew up in the same street and were members of the IET. The Wenlock Olympian society still champions the legacy of William Penny Brookes. Thomas Parker died in 1915 and his obituary appears in the proceedings of the institution for 1916, far from overlooked but perhaps a little underrated.   


By Roy Bowdler FIET April 2012