On August 26, 1923, British engineer, mathematician, physicist and inventor Hertha Ayrton died of blood poisoning resulting from an insect bite. Known in adult life as Hertha Ayrton, born Phoebe Sarah Marks, she was awarded the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society for her work on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. She invented a sphygmograph (a device that charts pulse beats, but was not the first to do so), and a line divider (a drafting instrument to divide a line into any given number of equal parts). Her design improvements made arc lights quieter and more reliable.
Passing the Tripos but not receiving a Degree
Hertha Ayrton was born Phoebe Sarah Marks in Portsea, Hampshire, England, on 28 April 1854, and came from a Jewish immigrant family from Poland. Around the age of nine, she was invited by her aunts, who ran a school in London, to live with her cousins and be educated with them. Ayrton began working as a governess at the age of 16 and studied mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge. During her time there, Ayrton constructed a sphygmomanometer, led the choral society, and established a mathematical club together with Charlotte Scott, among other things. After Hertha Ayrton passed the Mathematical Tripos, Cambridge did not grant her an academic degree since back then, Cambridge gave only certificates and not full degrees to women. However, after passing an external examination at the University of London she was awarded a Bachelor Degree in 1881.
Mathematical Questions and their Solutions
Ayrton began teaching at Notting Hill and Ealing High School and devised and solved mathematical problems, many of which were published in “Mathematical Questions and Their Solutions” from the Educational Times. Her first significant invention was the line-divider, an engineering drawing instrument for dividing a line into any number of equal parts and for enlarging and reducing figures. Her invention was used by artists, as well as architects and engineers.
The Electric Arc
During the 1880s, Ayrton attended evening classes on electricity at Finsbury Technical College, delivered by her husband to be Professor William Edward Ayrton, a pioneer in electrical engineering and physics education and a fellow of the Royal Society. During that period, she also started to research the investigation into the characteristics of the electric arc.
During the late 19th century, electric arc lighting was in wide use for public lighting. However, the tendency of electric arcs to flicker and hiss was a major problem. Hertha Ayrton wrote a series of articles for the Electrician, explaining that these phenomena were the result of oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods used to create the arc in 1895. A few years later, she became the first woman ever to read her own paper before the Institution of Electrical Engineers, it was titled “The Hissing of the Electric Arc“. After a great success, she was elected the first female member of the IEE.
Not Allowed to Present to the Royal Society
When Ayrton petitioned to present a paper before the Royal Society, she was not allowed – as a woman – and “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc” was read by John Perry instead. However, Hertha Ayrton became the first woman to win a prize from the Society, the Hughes Medal, awarded to her in 1906 in honour of her research on the motion of ripples in sand and water and her work on the electric arc. Ayrton further gave talks at the International Congress of Women in 1899 and at the International Electrical Congress in Paris in 1900. It is believed that due to her influence in science, the British Association for the Advancement of Science allowed women to serve on general and sectional committees.
Married Women are Not Eligible as Fellows
“The Electric Arc” was published in 1902. In it, Ayrton summarized her research and work on the electric arc, with origins in her earlier articles from the Electrician published between 1895 and 1896. With this publication, her contribution to the field of electrical engineering began to be cemented. For her work on “The Electric Arc“, John Perry proposed Hertha Ayrton as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902. Unfortunately, her application was turned down by the Council of the Royal Society, who decreed that married women were not eligible to be Fellows. About two years later, Ayrton became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society, titled “The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks“. It was later published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
Support for Women’s Suffrage
Ayrton became deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement, joining the WSPU in 1907 after attending a celebration with released prisoners. Ayrton also was with the delegation that went with Mrs Emily Pankhurst to see the Prime Minister and met his private secretary instead on 18 November 1910 (Black Friday). Ayrton permitted Christabel Pankhurst to transfer sums to her bank account to avoid confiscation in 1912, and hosted Mrs Pankhurst in times of recovery from imprisonment and force feeding. One attempt to re-arrest Mrs Pankhurst on 29 April 1913 to continue her sentence, was driven back by suffragettes picketing outside, but Mrs Pankhurst was eventually re-arrested outside Ayrton’s home on her way to the funeral of Emily Davison, who was killed after running in front of the King’s horse at the Derby.
Ayrton delivered seven papers before the Royal Society between 1901 and 1926, the last posthumously. Ayrton’s interest in vortices in water and air inspired the Ayrton fan, or flapper, used in the trenches in the First World War to dispel poison gas. Ayrton fought for its acceptance and organised its production, over 100,000 being used on the Western Front. It was also used in mines after the war. After her husband’s death in 1908, she was politically active in promoting the right to vote for women, which was introduced in England in 1918.
On August 26, 1923, Hertha Ayrton died of blood poisoning resulting from an insect bite at age 69.
References and Further Reading:
-  Hertha Ayrton Life and Work in Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics
-  Hertha Ayrton at the Jewish Women’s Archive
-  Hertha Ayrton short Biography at Inventricity
-  Hertha Ayrton at Wikidata
-  Hertha Marks Ayrton: The Electric Arc. The Electrican Printing and Publishing Co, London 1902
-  Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragette Movement, SciHi Blog
-  O’Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., “Hertha Ayrton”, MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
-  Timeline of Women Inventors, via DBPedia and Wikidata