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Archives Biographies: Hertha Ayrton

Early life, education and women's suffrage

Hertha Ayrton was an extraordinary woman, not only because she was the first woman to grace this Institution, but because of the impact she appears to have had on anyone who came into contact with her. As her husband, Professor William Ayrton, once said to her cousin, Dr Philip Hartog, "you and I are able people, but Hertha is a genius."

She was born in 1854 as Sarah Marks, the third child of a Polish Jewish watchmaker. Her father died in 1861, leaving Sarah's mother with seven children and an eighth expected. Sarah certainly took on some of the responsibility for caring for the younger children, one that she never relinquished in the case of her younger sister, Lavinia, but her mother, Alice Marks, was a very strong woman. 

In spite of the temptation to keep her daughter at home to help with the upbringing of the younger children, she was determined that the family's difficult circumstances were not going to stand in the way of Sarah's obvious intellectual capabilities.

In 1863, Sarah's aunt, Marion Hartog, offered to take her to London, to be educated in the school she ran with her husband. Mrs Marks, holding the view that women needed more, not less, of an education than men as life was likely to be harder for them, allowed Sarah to go.

At the Hartogs' school, Sarah established her reputation both as a scholar and a fighter in the cause of justice, once going on hunger strike for two days when wrongly accused of some misdemeanour. It was this principle which later lead to her committed involvement with the suffrage movement. 

She was always keen to promote the idea of women's fitness to vote through her own achievements in a male-dominated field, but she was never shy of making herself prominent in the political arena. She took part in marches and demonstrations and opened her home to women released from jail after being on hunger strike, including Mrs Pankhurst.

The importance of her further education

At the age of sixteen, she became self-sufficient, working as a governess, but she still had a desire for her own education. An introduction to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon in 1873 led to her applying to Girton College, of which Madame Bodichon was one of the founders. It was through Madame Bodichon that she first became friends with the novelist, George Eliot, who was also a keen supporter of education for women. 

A letter from Eliot in 1875 shows that she had taken a personal interest in Hertha's efforts to raise the necessary funds to take up her place at Girton: I have written to one lady, who I know will help us if she can. But I think I must give up the attempt to interest anyone else until I have the opportunity of personal intercourse with our friends.

At the time that Eliot met Hertha, she was working on Daniel Deronda, in which one of the major characters is a young Jewish girl with a distinctive voice and a talent for singing. Eliot was already interested in Jewish history and had conceived the character of Mirah before she made the acquaintance of Hertha Marks, but it is also undeniable that Mirah shares many physical and personal characteristics with Hertha: the dark, curly hair, the distinctive voice on which Eliot had commented when speaking to Hertha and of course, their Jewishness.

At college, Hertha was renowned for the mental agility which led her to seek out practical applications to any problem and while still a student she invented a device for recording pulse beats - and a line divider. As in later life, however, intellectual endeavours never occupied her to the exclusion of other interests. She was responsible for the founding of the college Fire Brigade and was a prominent member of the Choral Society. 

She also seems to have played a most significant part in college life, with one fellow student describing her as "always the most striking figure among the students." Her result in her final exam, however, did not reflect her ability; she was placed fifteenth in the Third Class. 

She wrote to Madame Bodichon afterwards, expressing her sorrow at having failed so badly. "I think it is very hard on you after all you have done for me, that I should do no better. It is not for want of work, nor even entirely of brains, but rather a want of memory and still more presence of mind in the exam. room. So I have turned out a failure."

Hertha and William Ayrton

After leaving college, she returned to teaching as a means of supporting herself, but continued her own education at the same time, attending classes at the Finsbury Technical College. Her lecturer was Professor William Ayrton, who became President of the Institution in 1892.

He and Hertha were married in 1885. For some time after their marriage, domestic responsibilities took up much of Hertha's energies; she was never particularly physically strong and had already had to defer her studies at Girton because of poor health. She did, however, keep up some of her own work and in 1888, gave a series of lectures for women on electricity. When Barbara Bodichon died in 1891, the legacy she left to Hertha enabled her to employ a housekeeper and give her attention more fully to the challenges of scientific research.

At this time, Professor Ayrton was engaged in research into the electric arc, but when a paper he was due to present was accidentally destroyed, Hertha took over the project while the professor turned his attention to other matters. Always supportive of his wife's endeavours, Ayrton was scrupulous about not collaborating with her as he knew that any joint work would undoubtedly be credited to himself by the world at large. 

So Hertha turned her attention to the sometimes eccentric behaviour of the arc. In 1895 she published a series of articles in The Electrician on the subject and in March 1899, was the first woman to present a paper to the Institution. She was elected to full membership of the Institution two days later.

Hertha and the Electric Arc

The arc lamp, widely used at this time for lighting in streets and public buildings, could be problematic because of its tendency to hiss, with the result that the light produced was apt to be inconstant. Hertha's experiments explained that the hissing and the accompanying change in appearance of the arc were caused when oxygen came into contact with the crater formed in the carbon. 

This happened when the crater was too large to occupy only the end of the positive carbon and extended up the side, thus coming into direct contact with the air and causing it to burn rather than to volatilise. 

Hertha proved through careful experiment that if air was excluded from the arc, the hissing did not occur. Neither did it occur when nitrogen or other component parts of air were introduced in isolation. She demonstrated that if the arc could be protected from direct contact with air, the hissing and the subsequent reduction in performance of the lamp could be prevented.

Hertha and the Scientific Establishment

The IEE appears to have distinguished itself by the purely professional interest they took in Hertha's work, tending to support her own view that it was the merit of the research which mattered, not the gender of the scientist, but other institutions were not so welcoming. 

In 1902 she was proposed as a Fellow of the Royal Society, causing consternation. Her candidature was supported by some notable men of science, but when the council of the Royal Society met to discuss the issue, it was decreed as follows:

We are of the opinion that married women are not eligible as Fellows of the Royal Society. Whether the Charters admit of the election of unmarried women appears to us to be very doubtful.

Nevertheless, Hertha read a paper at the Royal Society in 1904, describing her new work on ripple movements in sand and water. For over 100 years Hertha remained the only woman to have been awarded the Hughes Medal, which she received in 1906 for her work on the arc and on sand ripples. Over the next few years, she continued her experiments on ripples, constantly refining them to answer the criticisms of her results. 

At the outbreak of the First World War, she began to apply the theories she had developed about oscillations in water to the movement of air. With her habitual practical turn of mind, this was quickly put to use in the invention of the Ayrton Flapper Fan. She encountered some difficulty in getting the military to consider her idea, but her invention was eventually adopted and used to clear the trenches of poisonous gas. After the war, she continued with her work in this field until her death in 1923.