Hertha Marks Ayrton: mathematician, inventor, activist

As all eyes turn towards the past today as we enter the centenary of the First World War, we celebrate one woman in particular who strove to propel change both on the front line and back home. Join us today as we celebrate Hertha Marks Ayrton, a lifelong inventor and advocate for women. 

Hertha’s childhood was not one of good fortune.

She began her humble roots in Portsea, as the third of eight children in a family that had fled to England to escape anti-Semitic persecution. Born in 1854 as Phoebe Sarah Marks, it was just seven years later that a death in the family changed the course of her life. Her father – a skilled clockmaker and jeweller – left the family in debt with his passing, and the young Hertha spent the years that followed assisting with the care of her younger siblings.

Her mother, Alice Marks, was a passionate woman of strong will. Though destitute, she supported her eight children through selling her needlework, and felt strongly that the family’s circumstances would not interfere with Hertha’s obvious intellectual abilities.

‘You and I are able people, but Hertha is a genius.’

At the age of nine, her mother agreed that Hertha would move to London for an education under the tutelage of her aunt. Here she found her voice in social justice issues, in a passion that would later pave the way for her suffragist activism. Independent from an early age, she abandoned her birth name to adopt Hertha as her title: some sources say she was inspired by the heroine of a bestselling feminist novel by Fredrika Bremer, whilst others cite her agnosticism and her identification with the earth goddess of a Swinburne poem that attacked conventional religion.

What is clear is that the headstrong Hertha carried on the values of independence and self-sufficiency through the years that followed. Aside from making keen strides in mathematics and philosophy, Hertha continued to support her impoverished family with earnings from tutoring and embroidery. Soon, her dream to enter university was made a reality thanks to Madame Barbara Bodichon, a strong advocate for women’s education and co-founder of Cambridge’s Girton College – Hertha passed the entrance examination with flying colours, and thanks to the financial generosity of Madame Bodichon was able to enrol in Girton in 1876.

Hertha thrived at Cambridge. Amongst many of her initiatives there was the founding of the mathematics club with classmate Charlotte Scott, who would later become a prominent British mathematician. However, Hertha’s education soon became impeded by bouts of illness, which caused her great distress – a third class honours thoroughly disappointed Hertha upon collecting her results, and she wrote to Madame Bodichon expressing her sorrow.

‘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.’

But despite her perception, failure was far from reality. Hertha sat an external examination again, this for the University of London, and achieved her B.Sc in 1881. She continued to support herself as a tutor whilst experimenting with engineering on the side, and in 1884 came up with her first major invention. The line-divider, an instrument for dividing a line into any number of equal parts, was useful for artists and engineers alike, and Hertha’s device was soon showcased in the Exhibition of Women’s Industries to a storm of press attention.

The next stop on Hertha’s train of interest was the study of electricity, and under electrical engineer William Ayrton – her later life partner – she excelled in a series of night classes. Captivated by the problem in which the electric arc lighting used at time had a tendency to flicker and hiss, Hertha devoted herself to writing a series of articles investigating the issue. She explained that these phenomena were the result of oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods in the lights – a discovery which quickly led to direct improvements in items such as searchlights and cinema projectors. Some years later Hertha became the first woman to read her findings on arc lighting before the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and was elected the first female member of the organization shortly after.

As her partner’s health failed rapidly, Hertha spent increasing amounts of time devoted to his care. A lifelong multitasker, she spent the time productively, turning her attention to hydrodynamics and the science of sand ripple patterns while her husband rested at the seashore.

This work led her to become the first woman to read her own paper before the Royal Society in 1904, on ‘The origin and growth of the ripple mark’. She received the prestigious organisation’s Hughes Medal for her work just two years later, but was frustratingly rejected as a Fellow of the Society on the grounds that she was not qualified as a married woman.

It was around this time that Hertha became involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union, participating in many suffrage rallies between 1906 and 1913, nursing hunger strikers back to health and enduring the verbal and physical abuse in the mass demonstrations of 1910. Hertha even befriended the eminent physicist Madame Curie, providing refuge for her in 1912 so that she could recover from stress and a kidney illness. The pair had bonded over their repeat experiences of being accused of riding on the coattails of their husband’s scientific achievements. Hertha wrote in Curie’s defence:

‘An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat’

But another national crisis was just around the corner, and Britain found itself in demand of innovations that could propel them to victory on the front line. As the First World War unfolded, Hertha turned her attention to one of the most pressing issues on the front line – the attacks of poisonous gases such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas, causing death and serious afflictions in the trenches. Drawing on her previous interest in the movements of water and air, she set to work designing the Ayrton fan, a hand-operated device used to dispel poisonous gases by creating a vortex of air to redirect the threat. Over 100,000 Ayrton fans were developed and employed on the Western Front.

Unfortunately, the fans proved effective only in winds less than nine miles per hour, and upgrades were quickly necessary. Hertha’s adapted version of the fan – a mechanically driven device, resistant to high winds – was ready by 1917. She campaigned strongly for the acceptance of the device, but was pained deeply by the bureaucratic errors and delays which prevented their implementation. Nonetheless, the improved device would go on to be used widely to improve ventilation in mines, sewers and industrial sectors.

Hertha Marks Ayrton did not have an easy start to life. Even when the fortunes came later, she struggled throughout her first degree and found barriers to being viewed as an equal within the scientific community. But as a natural innovator who wanted to build progress where she could, she repeatedly showed those who would follow in her footsteps the fruits of the sentiment if at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again.

Not only a role model to women due to her skills and visibility in a male-dominated field, she was changing the game as an activist and a trailblazer right up until her death in 1923. A strong proponent of campaign unity, she co-founded both the International Federation of University Women and the National Union of Scientific Workers in her final years, all the while finding the time to register 26 patents spanning her areas of expertise (five on mathematical dividers, 13 on arc lamps and electrodes, the rest on the propulsion of air).

What’s more, her achievements led Hertha to the comfortable financial position that her earlier self could only have dreamed of. Keeping her mother’s values close to heart (who had been a passionate community volunteer despite her poverty) Hertha strove to help others where she could. She became one of the largest backers of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and in her death left the sum of £8,160 to the Institution of Electrical Engineers – the organization she felt had welcomed her without prejudice, and helped to launch her career.

It is possibly of little surprise that Hertha’s daughter Barbara – named in honour of lifelong supporter and friend Madame Bodichon – went on to become an active Labour politician, leading the Hendon North constituency at the close of World War Two. Meanwhile, Hertha was in 2010 named by the Royal Society as one of the ten most influential British women in the history of science – celebrated in the walls of the prestigious organization at last.

see [1][2][3][4][5][6][7]


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