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Bright Spark – Hertha Ayrton

The modern world would look very different without the contributions of those who helped us harness electricity and develop electrical equipment. Here, we focus on some of the pioneers of the electrical world and their remarkable achievements.


NAME: Hertha Ayrton

DATES: 28 April 1854 (Portsea, Hampshire) – 23 August 1923 (North Lancing, Sussex)

EARLY LIFE: Born Phoebe Sarah Marks, she was the daughter of a Polish watchmaker and an English seamstress. Her father’s early death left her mother looking after eight children, with Phoebe’s help.

Aged nine, she moved to London to be educated at her aunt’s school, before working as a governess and then passing her entrance exams to Cambridge in 1874, where she studied maths and physics at Girton College.

FIRST INVENTION: A line divider for artists, architects and design engineers, which was patented and shown at the Exhibition of Women’s Industries.

When an electric current passes from one conductor to another through a non-conducting medium, it creates an electric arc. Hertha Ayrton’s studies of this phenomenon advanced the understanding of the electric arc. In particular, she looked at its instability and developed a theory based on arc length, pressure and voltage.

In the preface to her book The Electric Arc, published in 1902, she says:

“In experimenting on the arc, my aim was not so much to add to the large number of isolated facts that had already been discovered, as to form some idea of the bearing of these upon one another, and thus to arrive at a clear conception of what takes place in each part of the arc and carbons at every moment.”

The outcome of her studies included patents for anti-aircraft lights and more advanced arc-lamp technology, which counted among 26 patents she registered during her lifetime.

1884 Began evening classes in electricity and a year later married her tutor, William Ayrton, a fellow of the Royal Society and a pioneer in electrical engineering. In the following years, they worked both together and independently on electrical experiments.

1895-96 Pubished a series of articles in The Electrician, which later formed the basis of her book The Electric Arc.

1899 Became the first woman invited to read a paper at the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Also the first woman awarded membership and to receive a prize.

1900 Spoke at the Paris International Electrical Congress.
1902 Published The Electric Arc; became first woman proposed for a Royal Society fellowship – ruled ineligible due to her lack of status as a married woman.
1906 Won the Royal Society’s Hughes medal for work on both the electric arc and sand ripples.
1908 Death of her husband.

1910 Marched on Downing Street with Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes.
1915/6 Designed an anti-gas fan, later known as the Ayrton Fan to help rid the trenches of poisonous gas during the First World War.
1919 Co-founded the International Federation of University Women.

1920 Co-founded the National Union of Scientific Workers.
1923 Died of septicemia on 23 August, aged 69.

1. Her friend Ottilie gave her the nickname of Hertha after the heroine of a poem by Swinburne
2. Hertha counted Marie Curie among her good friends.
3. Her mentor was Barbara Bodichon, a leading feminist.

Hertha Ayrton’s legacy lies in her work on the electric arc and the various patents she registered. Her development of the anti-gas fan doubtless saved lives and it is to her credit that she continued lobbying the Home Office, who were initially dismissive, until more than 100,000 of these fans were issued to British soldiers on the Western Front.

Hertha was also a trailblazer in the field of women’s rights and encouraging the scientific community to accept women into their organisations and recognise their achievements.


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