KEYWORDS: Electricity, electrical engineering, public lighting, electric arcs, arc lighting, sand ripples, mathematician, physicist, inventor, engineer, Ayrton fan, line-divider
SHE THOUGHT IT
A role model, a suffragist, and a passionate liberal thinker; Hertha Ayrton was, above all, a woman well ahead of her time. In an era when women faced innumerable difficulties in establishing themselves in any professional role that could jeopardise their roles as wives and mothers, Hertha Ayrton did not have just one, but several titles. Electrical engineer, mathematician, physicist, inventor, suffragette, mother, and wife, she was an extraordinary woman of great passion with an inventive mind. With a long career marked by twenty-six patents in three different fields, Ayrton was also the first woman allowed to present her own paper at the Royal Society in London in 1904, which was an enormous accomplishment, since the Society was a bastion of male dominance and remains so even today. Five years earlier, she became the first woman to be invited to read her paper at the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and the first woman to become a member of the institution1 (122-123).
Widely known for her invention of the line-divider, which she patented in 1884, and the Ayrton fan, which was used during the First World War to eliminate harmful gases from the trenches, Hertha Ayrton is surely most celebrated for the contributions she made to the understanding and improvement of electric arcs, which were mostly used for public lighting in the past. By recognising the presence of oxygen as the main problem causing the arcs to produce noisy and inconsistent lighting, Ayrton helped improve street lighting, lighthouses, cinemas, and antiaircraft spotlights2 (p.13). By evacuating oxygen from the arc, Ayrton was able to produce quiet arc lights with consistent lighting and much faster power gain1 (p.121). Besides the practical improvements enabled by her discovery, Ayrton’s reputation lies also in her theoretical knowledge in the field of electrical engineering1 ( p.115).
Born in Portsea, Hampshire on 28 April 1854 as Phoebe Sarah Marks, she was the third of eight children in a Jewish family. The death of her father in 1861 compelled her to become responsible and learn how to support the family, so she became a greatly independent and self-sufficient child1 (p.118). Due to the family’s poor financial situation, she had moved to London by the age of nine to live and study with her cousins at a school owned by her aunt2 (p.12). She “rejected” her given name as “an expression of independence”1 (p.118) and used the nickname Hertha, suggested to her by her friend Ottilie Blind. At the age of sixteen, Ayrton was already working as a governess, sending money to her family. She knew she wanted to continue her education, but she would keep this job for six more years1 (p. 118).
From an early age, Hertha Ayrton found plenty of encouragement to pursue her studies both from her family and friends, who supported her actively. One of her most important supporters was Barbara Bodichon, whom she met in 1873. Bodichon was one of the founders of Girton College, the only all-female college at Cambridge and one of England’s first residential colleges for women1 (p.118). Encouraged by Barbara and the writer George Eliot2 (p.12) (pen name of Mary Ann Evans), another great supporter of women’s education, Hertha Ayrton enrolled at Girton College in 1876 to study mathematics. At that time, she was financially supported mainly by Barbara Bodichon and some other friends1 (p.119). It was during her student days that Ayrton laid the foundation of her long-term innovative career with the construction of a sphygmograph, a device made to record pulse beats, and the invention of the line-divider, an instrument for dividing a line into any number of equal parts2 (p.12).
Despite her poor results, Ayrton passed her Mathematical Tripos examination in 1880, and returned to London the following year1 (p.119). Supporting herself as a mathematics teacher at Kensington High School from 1881 onward, Ayrton was accepted into Finsbury Technical College in 1884, the same year she patented her line-divider. She attended evening classes in science presented by Professor William Edward Ayrton, who was a pioneer in electrical engineering and a Fellow of the Royal Society. They married in 1885, and a year later Hertha gave birth to a daughter, whom she named after her most significant mentor and supporter, Barbara Bodichon1 (p.119-120).
Professor Ayrton was a great advocate of women’s rights, and as such he encouraged his wife’s scientific career. Concurrently with her independent research, Hertha Ayrton was an assistant to professor Ayrton in his work, and in 1893 she started developing a deep interest in electric arcs. Very soon, she found a solution to the erratic inconsistent lighting of the arc lamps1 (p.120). Her work was published in the Electrician in 1895 and the Electric Arc in 19022 (p.13). She presented a paper containing the results of her research to the IEE in 1899, which made her a full member of the institution as well as a “leading authority on the electric arc”1 (p.121). In the same year, she supervised the physics section of the International Congress of Women in London and the next year she spoke at the International Electrical Congress in Paris1 (p.121).
When her family moved to the seaside because of W. E. Ayrton’s health problems in 1901, Hertha Ayrton changed the focus of her research. Without a laboratory, she directed her attention to study waves and the creation of sand ripples1 (p.121-122). Her extended observations in this area were reported to the Engineering section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1904, and three years later to the Physical Society, as well to the Royal Society in 1908 and 1911. Ayrton was also involved in several other scientific areas of research, since she was completing all of her husband’s projects after he became too ill; he died in 19082 (p.13). During the First World War she invented the Ayrton fan, designed to clear poisonous gases from the trenches. More than a hundred thousand of these fans were made and distributed to five million soldiers in France2 (p.13). From 1884 until her death, Hertha Ayrton registered twenty-six different patents. She died on 23 August 1923.
 ‘Hertha’ after the ambitious heroine of a novel by the feminist Swedish writer, Frederika Bremer” (4).
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
Although she had opportunities that only few women in engineering would have for another five decades, there were times when Ayrton was held back by gender discrimination. When the Royal Society discussed the possibility of Hertha Ayrton’s election as a fellow in 1902, her nomination was declined because of her gender, her open advocacy of women’s rights, and because she was married2 (p. 13). Three years before that, in 1899, her public presentation of her latest breakthroughs in perfecting the functioning of electric arc lights was described in the media as a spectacle, referring to Ayrton almost as a “circus performer”3 (p. 210) who left the female part of the audience speechless with her handling of the arc light covered in glass; “Mrs. Ayrton was not a bit afraid of it”3 (p. 210).
SHE SAID IT
An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.
Swaby, Rachel (2015), Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, New York, Broadway Books, p. 211.
Personally I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of women in science is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not the sex point of view.
Swaby, Rachel (2015), Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, New York, Broadway Books, p. 210-211.
THEY SAID IT
Aytron was a creative problem solver. She had the flexibility and skill set to tackle a hiss, a flicker, or a deadly gas, whether it required a set of pillboxes or the principles of physics. It never mattered if others believed those things weren’t within her reach. She knew they were.
Swaby, Rachel (2015), Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, New York, Broadway Books, p. 212.
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
1906: Hughes Medal of the Royal Society
1925: Ottilie Hancock, Ayrton’s childhood friend, established the Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College
2009: Panasonic Trust inaugurated the Hertha Marks Ayrton Fellowship with the purpose of promoting education of minorities or under-represented groups in engineering with funding to study a full-time Master’s degree course
2015: British Society for the History of Science created the Ayrton Prize
In addition to her scientific interest, Hertha Ayrton was also a political activist and took part of many militant demonstrations. She was an outspoken and active advocate of women’s causes1 (p.120). From her early years and unconditionally supported by numerous women, Hertha Ayrton was given an insight into the importance of the fight for women’s rights. Her liberal beliefs and fierce attitude helped her in penetrating male-dominated institutions, such as when the Institute of Electrical Engineers broke its own tradition by inviting her to read her paper, and later made her a full member, the first female member until 19561 (p.120).
Eliot, George (1876), Daniel Deronda, London, William Blackwood & Sons Ltd. The Jewish character of Mirah is thought to be given some of Ayrton’s personal characteristics.
Arsène Darmesteter, Helena (1906), Hertha Ayrton (1854—1923), oil on canvas, 159 x 99cm, Girton College, University of Cambridge.
BIBLIOGRAPHY BY HERTHA AYRTON
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— / (1926), “Primary and Secondary Vortices in Oscillating Fluids: Their Connection with Skin Friction”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, Containing Papers of a Mathematical and Physical Character, 113 (#763), 44-45, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/94582?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents>(last accessed 10 Jan. 2017)
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Barnard. S. (2000), “Beautiful genius: Hertha Ayrton and the electric arc”, Proceedings of the IEEE, 88 (10), 1677-1679.
Mason, Joan (1991), “Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) and the admission of women to the Royal Society of London”, Notes and Records Roy. Soc. Lonfon, 45 (2), 201-220.
Mather, Thomas (1923), “Mrs. Herta Ayrton”, Nature, 112, 939.
Sharp, Evelyn (1926), Hertha Ayrton: 1854-1923, a Memoir, London, Edward Arnold & Company.
Tattersall, James J. / Shawnee L. McMurran (1995), “Hertha Ayrton: A Persistent Experiment”, Journal of Women’s History, 7 (2), 86-112.
Troner, A.P. (1924), “Mrs. Ayrton’s work on the electric arc”, Nature 113, 48-49.
- Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1987), “Marital Collaboration: An Approach to Science”, in Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science 1789-1979, Pnina G. Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram, New Brunswick, London, Rutgers University Press, 104-126.
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