In the late nineteenth-century, few women had access to higher education, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Born to a poor immigrant family, Hertha Marks Ayrton let nothing stop her. She was a suffragette, a physicist, a mathematician, and an inventor. She was the woman men wanted to ignore.
On April 28, 1854, Hertha was born in Portsea, Hampshire, England, to a poor immigrant family. The third child of a Polish watchmaker and a seamstress, her parents named her Phoebe Sarah Marks. She went by the name Sarah.
In 1861, her mother was pregnant with their eighth child when her father died. Penniless, her mother returned to work as a seamstress. And seven-years-old, Sarah took over some of the childcare for her younger siblings.
Two years later, Sarah’s maternal aunt invited Sarah to live with her family in north-west London. Since her aunt and uncle ran a school, this gave Sarah an opportunity for education. Her mother approved of that. Her cousins introduced her to science and mathematics. Peers and teachers described her personality as fiery and occasionally crude.
By the age of sixteen, Sarah lived independently and worked as a governess. She became friends with the family of Karl Blind, Jewish-German emigrants. Blind’s daughter, Ottilie, gave Sarah the nickname of Hertha after the title and character name in the poem by Algernon Swinburne. Ottilie and Hertha (formerly Sarah) grew to be lifelong friends.
They attended suffrage meetings together and studied together for the Cambridge University entrance examination for women.
Hertha wanted to go to Cambridge even though Cambridge did not award degrees to women.
Ottilie introduced Hertha to Barbara Bodichon, an outspoken feminist and women’s rights activist. Bodichon’s friendship and mentorship led to a university education Hertha would never have had otherwise.
Bodichon was one of the main founders of Girton College, Cambridge. She encouraged Hertha to apply to Girton, Cambridge’s only all-female college and the first women’s residential college in England. Bodichon also introduced Hertha to another feminist, Mary Anne Evens, whose pen name was George Eliot.
A Little Help from her Friends
Unable to get a scholarship in 1876, Hertha could not afford the £92 a year to attend Girton. (According to this conversion site £92 would be worth about £10,889.34 or $10,889.34 usd in 2021). Her dreams of attending college would have died then, but for the help of friends. Bodichon, George Eliot, Lady Sophia Goldsmid, and others gave her financial aid.
She studied mathematics and began her earliest work on scientific and medical instruments. She founded the college fire brigade, was a leader of the College Choral Society, and with Charlotte Scott, formed a mathematics club.
Coached by the prominent English physicist, Richard T. Glazebrook, she passed the Mathematical Tripos in 1880. But Cambridge only awarded women certificates. So she went to a non-Cambridge source, passed that examination and earned a BSc degree from the University of London, one of the few British universities who granted degrees to women.
In London, Hertha tried teaching in a classroom and found it didn’t suit her. So she took up tutoring (math and other areas), embroidery, ran a club for working girls, and cared for her invalid sister.
Bodichon continued her financial aid and helped fund patent expenses. In 1884, Hertha patented a line-divider instrument. Useful for architects, engineers, and artists, her line-divider was an engineering instrument that divided lines into equal parts and would enlarge and reduce figures. (Remember, this was long before computers made this so easy.) Her line-divider received good reviews but wasn’t a commercial success.
She also started Professor William Edward Ayrton’s evening classes on electricity at Finsbury Technical College.
She married her former professor, William Edward Ayrton, on 6 May 1885. Their daughter was born in 1886. They named her Barbara Bodichon Ayrton after Hertha’s mentor.
Her mentor, Barbara Bodichon, died in 1891. Bodichon left Hertha a sum of money. That money allowed Hertha to support her aging mother and hire a housekeeper. Therefore, she had more time for study and research.
Public lighting by electric arc lights was problematic in the late nineteenth century. No one could explain why they hissed and produced irregular, flickering light. Performing experiments first with her husband, then on her own, Hertha figured it out. She published the reasons in a series of articles for the Electrician in 1895.
In 1899, she was the first woman ever to read her paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). She read her paper “The Hissing of the Electric Arc.” Soon she became the first and only female member of the IEE (until 1958).
The Royal Society refused to allow her to read a paper to them. So John Perry read her paper, “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc,” for her in 1901.
In 1902, she published The Electric Arc, a summary of her work on the electric arc.
Unfortunately, her husband’s serious illness required them to move. They had to leave the laboratory where they both worked. Hertha couldn’t continue her electric research. But the family’s coastal retreat gave her a new fascination with ripple marks.
In 1902, Hertha was the first woman nominated to the Royal Society. However, legal counsel advised against approving her membership because the law did not recognize a married woman as a person. Men could ignore her by a law created by men.
She became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society in 1904. Later, the Royal Society published her paper, “The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks.”
The Royal Society awarded her the prestigious Hughes Medal “for her experimental investigations on the electric arc, and also on sand ripples” in 1906. She was the fifth recipient of that annual award and the first woman ever to receive that award. (The next award to a woman was in 2008.) She never became a member.
Hertha’s husband died in 1908. This severely limited her access to laboratories (she only gained access because of her husband’s access.)
Still, she studied and researched. In 1911, she presented “Sand Ripples and Oscillating Water” to the Société de Physique in Paris. Her friend, Marie Curie, visited with her while she was there.
From 1911 to 1913, Hertha devoted much time and energy to suffrage. She took part in the Battle of Downing Street where policemen dressed in plain clothes repeatedly grabbed her by the throat and beat her and other suffragists.
After the Great War started, she wanted to find a way her research could help Britain’s efforts. She invented the Ayrton fan used to blow away poison gas released in the trenches. She described her device to the Royal Society in 1919. There was little support for her device.
The Ayrton Fan
Despite resistance from the Royal Society and the War Office, Hertha worked through her fan’s operational limitations. Opposition against her invention continued until she received support from A P Trotter, a fellow electrical engineer and member of the IEE who had contacts in British military command. Soon after that, the British military ordered more than 100,000 Ayrton Fans.
Despite a letter of support from Major H J Gillespie, formerly of the Royal Field Artillery, the British Army in France turned the Ayrton Fans down as ineffective in defense against gas in the field.
Hertha continued her studies of vortex. Supported by peers and friends, she was probably the first female professional engineer. She received twenty-six patents before her death.
A bug bite complicated by exhaustion, and other medical issues turned into blood poisoning. She died on 26 August 1923 at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex.
Two years after her death, her friend Ottilie (Hancock nee Blind) endowed the Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College.
By doing what she was interested in, she proved wrong many of the masculine myths about women of her time. History tried to ignore her, to erase her efforts. Let’s not allow history to ignore women any longer.
Top image: Portrait of Hertha Ayrton, Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Middle image: Girton College, Cambridge, 1869, Cornell University Library (No restrictions or No restrictions), via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom image: Cropped portrait Hertha Ayrton, Unknown:Bain News Service (publisher), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons