Born in Portsea, Hampshire, England and named Phoebe Sarah Marks – she later adopted the first name Hertha after the Teutonic earth goodness. Her father who had emigrated from Poland died when she was only seven and left the family heavily in debt, and who then struggled financially to survive. At the age of nine she went to live with her maternal aunt in London and attended the school that her uncle and aunt ran for their children. Both influenced the young Sarah her aunt teaching her mathematics and uncle philosophy. She supported herself and her family by tutoring and doing needle crafts. Her ambition of going to university was realised by the generosity of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon* one of the founders of Girton College, (Girton was the first residential college for women established at Cambridge), and this allowed her to enter the college in 1876 after passing the Cambridge University Examination for women in 1874, with honours in English and Mathematics. In spite of problems with bouts of illness and consequent poor examination results she eventually completed the Mathematical Tripos with a relatively poor grade 3rd class from Cambridge in 1880. It is important to note that women were not eligible for the university degree at this time and were only granted certificates. However she then successfully completed an external examination and received a BSc degree from the University of London in 1881. She was greatly helped during this difficult period by Richard Glazebrook who provided extra coaching. So in spite of immense prejudice and resultant negative attitudes created by the male dominated education system towards women, she survived and triumphed – a remarkable achievement at the time.
Very few women were involved in such subjects as engineering, mathematics and science whether in teaching or research. Hertha began to violate and break down this deplorable situation. Between 1881 and 1884 she continued to support herself by tutoring in mathematics and other related subjects. Up to then her main interest was mathematics but she inherited from her father a practical ability, (he was a clockmaker and jeweller), and started patenting scientific and mathematical instruments such as a line divider for drafting. She also wrote and set problems in mathematics that were published in the ‘Educational Times’ and became acknowledged as a gifted mathematician particularly in spatial and geometrical reasoning. Her main interest then began to switch to science and she attended physics classes at Finsbury Technical College and was tutored by William Ayrton, (see biographies on this website), who she married in 1885. William Ayrton was a widower with a young daughter and besides being an outstanding teacher and physicist was supportive of women’s education and legal rights.
Hertha then began to work with her husband on electricity and other aspects of physics but developed her own research interests especially on electrical arc lighting and soon became an acknowledged expert in this rapidly emerging technology. She published extensively in such journals as the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society’ and the ‘Electrician’ and wrote a seminal book on The Electric Arc which received international acclaim. She became recognised as a respected and renowned researcher in electricity and is now seen as a pioneer of plasma physics. Again it must be remembered that very few women were active in science and mathematics.
She was elected as the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in 1899 which possesses a commendable record in encouraging and recognising women in their discipline. Sadly the same cannot be said of the Royal Society for when she was nominated as the first woman for a fellowship she was refused on the excuse that she was married. The charter excluding women from fellowship was reversed in 1923 but it was another twenty years before a woman was elected. The Royal Society has a very poor record in recognising the achievements of women scientists and mathematics. However she did present a paper to the Royal Society in 1904 – the first women to do so and she later received the Society’s Hughes medal, an achievement yet to repeated by a woman. She was an amazing trail blazer!
Hertha had to reduce her research activities to look after her ailing husband and even during this period when at the seaside with William carried detailed analysis of the formation of sand ripples which later formed part of the recognition in the Hughes Medal, along with her pioneering work on electric arcs. William died in 1908 and she continued her research in such areas of hydrodynamics and invented a fan for ventilating the trenches in the First World War and also improved the design and efficiency of search lights. She was an active member of the Women’s Social and Political Unions and was a founding member of the International Federation of University Women and the National Union of Scientific Workers (1920). She served on a number of national and international committees associated with women’s rights. After WW1 she improved the design of the fan and continued her research on vortices. She died in 1923 leaving her not inconsiderable estate to The Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), the organisation that had encouraged and recognised her achievements throughout her career without prejudice or reservation. She is now recognised and accepted as an exceptional woman in her own right. Her approach to research was pragmatic and founded on engineering traditions; not for her were the theoretical physical models and concepts. Her background and education created this unique and productive individual. An example of this approach was her seminal work on sand ripples which initially was based solely on observation. Quite rightly she subsequently became a role model for future generations of women wishing to enter the scientific and engineering professions. Below she is delivering a lecture in 1899 to the Society of Electrical Engineers note the majority of males in audience and the visual aids she is using – a very remarkable lady.
In 1925 her lifelong friend Ottilie Hancock endowed the Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives Biographies. www.theiet.org
Mason. J. ‘Hertha Ayrton.’ In ‘Out of the Shadows: Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics.’ By Byers. N and Williams. G. (Eds). CUP, 2006.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon wrote a pamphlet ‘Women and Work’ in 1857; She and Emily Davies were founders of Girton College and were both closely associated with the origins of, and active supporters of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) – founded in 1859. Emily Davies served on the Committee of SPEW between 1865 and 1873. Emily Davies had been Mistress of Girton College since and in 1873 and in 1878 urged SPEW to apply for funding from various City Companies of London (see biographies on this website). This started an associated with the Clothworkers’ Company and later the City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI) after SPEW became incorporated by licence from the Board of Trade.