Hertha Ayrton was the first woman to read a paper to the Royal Society and the first woman member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). Her work on the electric arc was a precursor to the field of plasma physics and her studies of hydrodynamics led to the Ayrton fan, designed to dispel heavy poison gas from the trenches of the first World War.
Hertha Ayrton was born on 28 April 1854 in Portsea, England as Sarah Marks, the third of eight children of Levi and Alice Marks. Her father died in 1861, leaving the family in debt. Her mother believed that girls needed education more than boys as they have a harder battle to fight in the world and struggled to support her family thorough her needlework. When Sarah was nine Alice's sister offered to educate Sarah at her school in London where she learned well.
In her teens Sarah adopted the name Hertha and at the same time left the Jewish religion although she always remained proud of her heritage. Hertha supported herself by tutoring and embroidery until an introduction to Barbara Bodichon, one of the founders of Girton College Cambridge, provided funding for a longed-for university education.
Hertha entered Girton in 1876 and completed the Cambridge Tripos in 1881; degrees were not at that time awarded to women. She supported herself by teaching and in 1884 patented a line divider, an instrument for dividing a line into any number of equal parts.
Encouraged by this success and with financial backing from Mme Bodichon, Hertha began to consider seriously a scientific career. She went to Finsbury Technical College to study with the noted professor of physics, William Ayrton, a widower with a young daughter. They were married in May 1885. Although she initially lectured to women on practical electricity, the birth of a daughter, Barbara, coupled with domestic and social responsibilities, kept Hertha from research until 1893, when a legacy from Mme Bodichon enabled her to support her aging mother and hire a housekeeper.
She worked with her husband on potential differences in electric arcs. After the accidental destruction of her husband's results, Hertha continued the work alone, improving the technique and gaining excellent results which were published in the "Electrician" in 1895.In 1899 the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) awarded her a £10 prize and - most unusually - allowed her to read her paper; she was elected as the IEE's first woman member. In 1900 she spoke at the International Electrical Congress in Paris and in 1901 a colleague of her husband's read her paper "The mechanism of the electric arc" to the Royal Society. In 1902 her book "The Electric Arc" became the standard textbook on the subject. She was proposed for Fellowship of the Royal Society but not accepted because she was a married woman.
Hertha then turned her attention to analysing sand ripple patterns, leading her into the study of hydrodynamics. In 1904 she read her paper "The origin and growth of ripple marks" before the Royal Society, becoming the first woman to do so. In 1906 she was awarded the Hughes medal for her original research on the electric arc and on sand ripples.
From 1905-10 Hertha worked for the War Office and the Admiralty. During the first World War, she developed the Ayrton fan to dispel and clear poisonous gases at the front. The fan was not widely used which pained her deeply. However, she later developed it further for municipal and industrial purposes.
Hertha was unwavering in her support for the suffragette movement and in 1910 took part in demonstrations and nursed hunger strikers back to health. After the war, Hertha joined the Labour Party and the newly founded International Federation of University Women and the National Union of Scientific Workers. She died of septicaemia on 26 August 1923.
A London blue plaque Is at 41 Norfolk square,W2 where she lived between 1903 and 1923
The administration of the IOP kindly allow me to use this text which is their copyright and was written as part of the booklet "Opening doors on physics" accompanying the opening of 80 Portland Place 19 - 23 May 2003.
Page last updated 27 Apr 2014