Hertha Marks Ayrton was a mathematician, scientist, inventor, and the first female member of the IEE and Royal Society of London. Her accomplishments as an electrical engineer and women's rights activist have gone largely unnoticed until recently.

While many female scientists like Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and Ada Lovelace are finally getting the recognition they deserved during their lives, many more are still uncelebrated. Hertha Marks Ayrton was one whose achievements have gone unnoticed over the years. Her story gained more traction last year when Google featured her on Google Doodle on what would have been her 162nd birthday last year.

Of Ayrton's many achievements, some of the most prominent were her patents for arc lamps, electrodes, and mathematical dividers, as well her contributions to the IEE (now called the IET) and Royal Society in London. Although many men in science and academia at the time discounted her work simply because she was a woman, the very institution that shunned her would later recognize her achievements and award her the Hughes Medal.

In fact, Ayrton and Marie Curie were close friends and often bonded over their frequent snubbing by male-dominated institutions.

 

 

“An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat” -Hertha Ayrton to Marie Curie on being accused of riding their husbands’ scientific coat tails

 

Solving the Mysteries of Electric Arc

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most light electrical lighting was provided by arc lights, which usually consisted of two electrodes through an inert gas in a glass bulb. These lights had a tendency to flicker and hiss, making them a fire hazard, but scientists at the time were baffled as to why.

Ayrton theorized that the hissing and flickering came from the carbon rods coming into contact with oxygen rather than the electrode material evaporating (which was the common theory at the time). Her research on electric arcs led her to 13 patents, the first membership of the IEE for a woman, and—later, after years of dismissal—a fellowship with the Royal Society of London. Her work was a victory for public safety and the advancement of women's rights.

 

Hertha Ayrton’s experimental curves on arc lighting. From her research titled “The Electric Arc” for the Royal Society of London.

 

More Achievements and Her Legacy

Ayrton was no one-trick pony. She also had several other inventions and research breakthroughs.

Her first major invention was the line divider, an instrument that allowed people to divide a line into equal parts. This allowed engineers, architects, and even artists to enlarge and diminish their designs while keeping their proportions. She went on to patent five line dividers during her lifetime.

Her research on the formation of ripples in water and sand, which was published by the Royal Society of London in 1910, was another breakthrough in physics.

One of her contributions that was important to the times was a fan to expel gas attacks from trenches during World War I. At first, her invention was dismissed by researchers in the armed forces. Eventually, however, her ingenuity was recognized and, by the end of the war, there were over 100,000 "Ayrton fans" on the Western Front.

While we have no way of calculating how many lives the Ayrton fan saved, I'm sure the soldiers it aided were quite happy with the invention. 

 

Ayrton invented these fans for clearing gas out of allied trenches during World War 1. By the end of the war, there were over 100,000 "Ayrton fans" in use on the Western front.

 

Learn More About Hertha Marks Ayrton

Hertha Marks Ayrton accomplished far too much to fit in a single article, so I've compiled some resources if you'd like to learn more about her:

This is not a comprehensive list by any means, so if you know of any good books or web pages with information about Hertha Marks Ayrton, please share them in the comments!

 

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