Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hertha Ayrton: Inventor, Mathematician, Electrical Engineer

Hertha Ayrton was an award-winning engineer, mathematician, inventor, and physicist who befuddled the Royal Society of England by making discoveries in the field of electrical engineering and physical sciences despite being a woman. 

“An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.” ~ Hertha Ayrton

Hertha was born Phoebe Sarah Marks in Portsea, Portsmouth, on April 28, 1854. The third of eight children, Sarah's father was a watchmaker and jeweller who immigrated from Poland and struggled to earn enough for his family to eat. When he passed away in 1861, the family was left in great debt. Sarah's mother, Alice Marks, supported her children with needlepoint until they were old enough to get work themselves.

Being of formidable character and of the mind that women needed to gain more education than men as life would likely give them higher hurdles, Alice Marks sent Hertha to London to be educated at a school run by her sister and his husband. Having noted her daughter's intellect, Alice was not the type to keep her child at home due to financial circumstances, if it could be avoided.

Life in London

As a teenager Sarah adopted the name Hertha, after the heroine of a novel by Swedish feminist writer Frederika Bremer. While at the school she made a name for herself as a scholar and a fighter for justice, once going on a hunger strike for two days after being wrongfully accused of a misdemeanor.

She learned math, French, music, and Latin, and by the age of 16 was working as a live-in governess in London so she could send her earnings home to her mother and siblings. Though pleased to earn money, Hertha still yearned for an education, and after being introduced to Barbara Lee Smith Bodichon, one of the co-founders of the Girton College at Cambridge University, the first university college for women in England, Hertha submitted an application.

Bodichon was supportive of Hertha, so much that she organized and paid for mathematics lessons and arranged a loan so Hertha could attend the school. Once admitted, Hertha became known for her mental agility and aptitude. She had an inventor's mind, and developed two instruments while still a student: a device for recording pulses, and a line divider, used for dividing lines into equal parts. She also began a math club with fellow student Charlotte Scott, the purpose of which was to "find problems for the club to solve, and discuss any mathematics question that may arise."

Women were not awarded degrees at Cambridge until 1948, so when Hertha passed her final exams in 1880 she was awarded a certificate. Though known to be brilliant and described by one fellow student as "always the most striking figure among the students," she did not do as well as expected in her final exams, and was awarded Third Class (First Class would have been graduating with distinction).

She wrote with regret to Madame Bodichon afterwards, expressing her sorrow at having failed so badly: "I think it is very hard on you after all you have done for me, that I should do no better. It is not for want of work, nor even entirely of brains, but rather a want of memory and still more presence of mind in the exam. room. So I have turned out a failure."


For several years after school Hertha worked as a mathematics tutor, then in 1884 submitted a patent for the line-divider she had invented in school. The device was unveiled at the Exhibition of Women's Industries, and was adopted by artists and architects alike. It was Hertha's first major invention.

While attending classes at the Finsbury Technical College to further her studies, Hertha met Professor William Ayrton. William was an electrical engineer and the two presumably hit it off, because they were married in 1885. For some time after they got married Hertha dedicated herself to domestic responsibilities, though she did take some time out to deliver a series of lectures for women on electricity in 1888.

When Barbara Bodichon died in 1891 she left Hertha some money, however, and Hertha was able to hire a housekeeper and devote more time to scientific research - hence, Hertha's benefactor in her college years was once again her benefactor, this time after she had gone.

Electric Arc

With her time Hertha dedicated herself to the study of the electric arc. Since 1807 electric arcs had been used for illumination, created by placing two carbon rods very near to each other so that a brilliant arc was formed as the electricity jumped the gap. Arc lighting was bright but inconsistent and unsteady, and the light would flicker and hiss.

Used in street lights and the projection of movies, arc lighting was supposed to enhance a scene but instead could distract. Scientists such as William Aryon sought to make the light more steady and quiet, but his work on the arc was destroyed when a maid used his scientific papers to light a fire one cold evening.

Hertha took over the work and William turned to another project, being supportive of his wife's work and prudently understanding that if they collaborated, he would be the one to get the credit. Through experimentation and investigation, Hertha discovered the reason for the hissing, the changes in appearance of the arc, how to shorten the arc, and the relationship between the voltage drop across the arc, the arc's length, and the current.

In 1896 and 1897 she published twelve papers in The Electrician that laid out her findings, and described how to eliminate the hissing sound from arc lighting and significantly control its flickering.


Hertha's work was met with great astonishment, mostly regarding her gender and the fact that she seemed unafraid to work with electricity. There had been many investigations of the electric arc since its invention, but no-one had yet been able to explain the process and how certain results were attained in such a way as Hertha.

Hertha presented a paper at the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in 1899, the first ever read by a woman. She was also the first woman to attain IEE membership and be awarded a prize. At London's International Conference of Women, Hertha presided over the physical sciences section.

Members of the Royal Society in England, however, had deep reservations about her admittance. They would accept her work, but not her as a member, so in 1901 when the Society accepted Hertha's paper entitled "The Mechanism of the Electric Arc," it was presented by a male member, as Hertha's gender was not allowed.

By 1902 Hertha had received a nomination to join the Royal Society, but in case she forgot who was in charge the group consulted a lawyer, who reminded her. The lawyer's decision was that Hertha's gender made her ineligible for nomination, as a married woman had no legal standing separate from her husband.

Their formal decree was as follows: "We are of the opinion that married women are not eligible as Fellows of the Royal Society. Whether the Charters admit of the election of unmarried women appears to us to be very doubtful."

Hertha, for her part, thought that was all complete nonsense and told a journalist exactly this. "The idea of 'women and 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 sex, point of view."

In 1902 Hertha published The Electric Arc, a 450-page book the became the standard on arc lighting almost immediately. It would take the Royal Society two more years to allow Hertha to come and present one of her papers by herself, and in 1906 she was awarded the society's Hughes Medal for "the original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly as applied to the generation, storage, and use of energy."

Alas, she was still not made a member due to her gender, and she never would be.

Suffrage Supporter

No stranger to sexism or poverty, it is perhaps unexpected that Hertha was a staunch supporter of a woman's right to vote. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907 and became one of their largest contributors.

Hunger strikers like Emmeline Pankhurst were taken in by Hertha for recuperation, and in 1911 she refused to participate in the census in an act of protest. Instead of providing information, on the census form she scrawled, "How can I answer all these questions if I have not the intelligence to choose between two candidates for parliament? I will not supply these particulars until I have my rights as a citizen. Votes for Women. Hertha Ayerton."

Hertha was also friends with Marie Curie, and would defend Marie's work with vehemence in the press, pointing out instances when her friend's work was mistakenly attributed to her husband, Pierre Curie.

Ripple Movement

While walking on a beach in 1901 Hertha had looked at the ripples on the sand and across the water and began theorizing about their formation. She came to understand that they were caused by the oscillation of wind and of water, and it was this phenomenon that she described in her paper to the Royal Society in 1904, entitled "The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks."

From that paper:
“To anyone who, for the first time, sees a great stretch of sandy shore covered with innumerable ridges and furrows, as if combed with a giant comb, a dozen questions must immediately present themselves. How do these ripples form? Are they made and wiped out with every tide, or do they take a long time to grow, and last for many tides? What is the relation between the ripple and the waves to which they owe their existence? And a host of others too numerous to mention.”
While these may seem like simple observations, 1901 was the first time anyone had considered the ripple phenomenon from a scientific point of view, or could explain it.

The Ayrton Fan

Hertha did not put her theories about the flow of air and ripple movement into practice until the First World War, which saw a new and deadly weapon being used at Ypres in 1915. Chlorine and mustard gas were two of the chemicals used, the latter of which caused terrible blisters and ate away at the skin.

With her ideas about the oscillation of air, Hertha created fans with flappers to push the poisonous gases out of the trenches. The War Office was quick to dismiss her invention, partially confused by the name of the device: how could a "fan," a flimsy contraption that a woman carried, possibly help their men at the front?

It wasn't until Hertha took the story to the press and performed a demonstration that they acquiesced, issuing over 104,000 of the Ayrton Fans to soldiers in the trenches.

Following the war Hertha continued in this line of research, this time devising methods to clear mines and sewers of noxious gases. She remained committed to women's suffrage movement and her inventions. By the time of her death on August 26th, 1923, she had patented 26 devices.

  • Hertha Marks Ayrton. Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College,, 2016
  • Hertha Ayrton. Pam Hirsch, Jewish Women's Archive,, 2016.
  • Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World. Rachel Swaby, Broadway books, 2015.
  • Hertha Marks Ayrton. Eric Gregerson, Encyclopædia Britannica Online,, 2016.
  • Archives Biographies: Hertha Ayrton, The Institution of Engineering and Technology,, 2016. 

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