Hertha Ayrton: Teacher, Engineer, Mathematician, Physicist, Inventor and Suffragette

Helena Arsène Darmesteter, before 1905, Portrait of Hertha Ayrton, Girton College, University of Cambridge; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation, public domain via Wikipedia

Hertha Ayrton was born on 28th April 1854 in Portsea, Hampshire England. Her birth name was Phoebe Sarah Marks, but she adopted the name Hertha in her teens after the heroine of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne. As Hertha Ayrton as she became known, she was a teacher, engineer, mathematician, physicist, inventor and suffragette.

Girton College Fire Brigade 1878 featuring Hertha Ayrton.
© The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

Hertha’s father Levi Marks, was a Polish Jew who lived in Petworth, West Sussex but relocated to Portsea to be with Hertha’s mother (Alice Teresa Moss). Hertha was the third child and was one of eight children. After her father died in 1861 Hertha helped her mother with the younger siblings.

She was the step-daughter by marriage to Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1879 – 1945) (who we’ve also been researching for the Shalom Sussex project, mother to Barbara Bodichon Ayrton Gould (1886 – 1950) who became a Labour MP (and who was named for Hertha’s friend and well known feminist Barbara Bodichon), and grandmother to sculptor Michael Ayrton.

Showing academic promise she was taken from home and educated by her aunt Marion Hartog at her school in London from 1863 onwards. Hertha was a self-sufficient governess by the age of 16 years.

At Girton College Cambridge, she invented a device for recording pulse beats and a line divider. She was a prominent member of the choral society and founded the college fire brigade. Although she passed her Mathematics exams she was not awarded a degree as Cambridge denied these to women until 1948. 1

After college, she began teaching again and further educating herself at Finsbury Technical College where she met her future husband Prof William Edward Ayrton an English Physicist and Electrical Engineer. They were married on 6th May 1885. For a while after college and during her marriage, Hertha dedicated herself to domestic tasks but in 1891 Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (friend, mentor and one of the founders of Girton College) left her a legacy so she could get help with the housekeeping.

Having said this in 1888 Hertha gave a series of lectures for women on electricity. The Electric Arc – in the mid to late 1890s, the arc lamp to light the streets hissed a lot and often cut out meaning it worked inconsistently. Hertha discovered a way for things to flow more effectively by excluding air from the arc.

Although she was the first woman to read a paper to the Royal Society in 1904, she was refused election to its membership. In 1906, she was awarded a Hughes Medal for her work on the arc and ripple movements in sand – it was another 102 years before a woman won the medal again. 2

In 1911, Hertha visited Pairs and made friends with Marie Curie whom she
sheltered at her home after Curie’s affair with another scientist. Einstein wrote to Curie in admiration of Hertha. 3

Hertha Ayrton
© The Institute of Engineering and Technology

During WW1 she invented the Ayrton Fan or flapper, used in the trenches in the First World War to dispel poison and foul gas. From 1916 onwards 104,000 devices were supplied to troops but in 1920, Hertha wrote an article in The Times about the 2 bureaucratic delays in sending them to the front.

The Ayrton Fan, photo: Australian War Memorial

She often wrote to the Times including a letter to the editor entitled ‘Woman Suffrage’ (7 Feb 1907) and was friends with campaigners Louisa Goldsmid and Barbara Bodichon (Hastings). Hertha’s daughter Barbara Ayrton Gould (named after Bodichon) was an suffragette who spoke
at WSPU offices in Hastings and was arrested in London for her activities in 1912. 4

Post-war, Ayrton helped found the International Federation of University Women in 1919 and The National Union of Scientific Workers in 1920. She died of blood poisoning from an insect bite on 26 August 1923 at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex.

In her obituary in the Jewish Chronicle, it said that she identified as agnostic throughout her life, but: “She never lost an opportunity of expressing pride in her Jewish descent and for year after year” and “made a point of going home for Passover”.

[1] https://www.flickdrummond.com/news/hertha-ayrton-recognised-blue-plaque-portsea [2] https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/hertha-ayrton/ [3] Bruton, Elizabeth. “The life and material culture of Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923): suffragette, physicist, mathematician and inventor”  Science Museum Group Journal 10 (Autumn 2018). http://journal.sciencemuseum.ac.uk/browse/issue-10/the-life-and-material-culture-of-hertha-ayrton/ [4] Ann Kramer, Turbulent Spinsters: Women’s Fight for the Vote in Hastings & St Leonards, (Hastings: Circaidy Gregory press, 2018), p.104

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