Your Engineering Heritage: Hertha Ayrton, Pioneering Woman Electrical Engineer and Feminist

Your Engineering Heritage: Hertha Ayrton, Pioneering Woman Electrical Engineer and Feminist

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A few weeks ago, an article about the IEEE History Center’s REACH program informed readers of IEEE-USA Insight that the REACH website had won the Ayrton Prize for digital Engagement from the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS). Now that the beginning of March has brought us Women’s History Month, it is time to address the question:  Who was Hertha Ayrton, and why did the BSHS name a prize after her? The Ayrton Prize website states only, “The prize name was chosen by members of the BSHS from a shortlist to recognize the major contributions of Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) to numerous scientific fields, especially electrical engineering and mathematics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” It turns out that Ayrton was a pioneer in many fields, from mathematics to physics to politics to our own electrical engineering.  Her story is a fascinating, as well as inspiring.

Phoebe Sarah Marks was born in Portsea, Hampshire, England, on 28 April 1854, the daughter of a Jewish watchmaker from Poland and a local woman. Her father died when she was just seven and the family was poor, but her maternal aunts took her to London and educated her at a school that they operated. Initially, upon graduation at sixteen she took a job as a governess, common for women of the lower middle classes who managed to get an education. However, she continued to study and was able to take honors in English and Mathematics.

Ayrton anti-gas fan, made of waterproof canvas stiffened with cane, with a wooden handle. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source

The late nineteenth century was a time of political foment for educated women in Britain. The young, bright Phoebe soon fell in with Suffragist circles. They recognized her genius, took her under their wings, and nicknamed her “Hertha” after the heroine of a popular feminist novel of the time. When her older colleagues organized the first university college for women, Girton College at Cambridge, they arranged for her to attend in mathematics, beginning in 1881. While there, she patented her first invention, a device for dividing lines into equal parts. Although it came out of her mathematical studies, it proved useful for architects and engineers.

Her mechanical pursuits led to an interest in the emerging field of electrical engineering, and she attended evening classes in electricity given by William Edward Ayrton, a Fellow of the Royal Society. She married Ayrton, a widower, in 1885, and became stepmother to his young daughter; they had a daughter together in 1886. Will and Hertha began collaborating on electrical research. Hertha developed a theory relating the length of an electric arc to current and voltage. She published twelve articles on the topic in The Electrician in 1895 and 1896, followed by the standard book on DC arcs. The Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE, the UK counterpart to IEEE now known as IET) invited her to read a paper in 1899, their first such invitation to a woman. She and her husband continued to work together on improving arcs for the Royal Navy’s searchlights.

At the same time, Hertha became interested in the physics of air and water flow. After Will died in 1908, this became the focus of her research, which led the invention of an anti-gas fan (pictured above), used by UK forces in World War I. During this period, with her daughters coming of age, she also intensified her feminist activities, both for women’s suffrage in the UK and for women in science globally.  When the British press suggested that the work of her friend Marie Curie was actually that of her husband, Hertha mounted a spirited defense.  She pointed out that “errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat” (unfortunately, a situation that has not diminished in the past 100 years).

Hertha Ayrton died on 26 August 1923, leaving behind 26 UK patents (13 in electrical engineering) and a rich legacy of scientific, technological and political achievement. The IEEE REACH program is proud to have received an award bearing her name.  For more information and a list of sources, visit here.


Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: http://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html.


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