Hertha Ayrton was the first woman proposed as a Fellow of the Royal Society – I say “proposed as” not “elected” because the proposal was rejected because of her gender. It’s pointless to try to fit Ayrton into a single “category” – she wasn’t an inventor or a physicist or a mathematician or an engineer or a suffragist – she was all of these! And, thanks to her hard work, determination, and willingness to push boundaries, women today can be all these things as well!
Ayrton was born Sarah Phoebe Marks in England in 1854. Money was tight – Hertha was one of 8 children, including a sister with disabilities, and her father died when she was only seven. To help make ends meet, her mother sent her to live and study at her aunt’s school in London.
In her teenage years, Hertha became a governess, sending money back to her mother to support her siblings’ education while continuing her own education in the evenings. She became deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement with her friend Otillie Blind who gave her the nickname Hertha, meaning Earth-goddess. Through the suffrage movement, she was introduced to Barbara Bodichon, co-founder of Cambridge’s Girton College, who took her on as a protégée.
Ayrton studied math at Girton before returning to London to teach it. Although she passed her examinations qualifying her for a degree, Cambridge would only grant her a “certificate” because she was a woman, so she took an external examination at the University of London, which granted her a Bachelor of Science in 1881. While a student, she invented a device for measuring heart rate and later she invented and patented (with financial support from Bodichon) a line divider used by artist, architects, and engineers to scale drawings.
She continued to pursue an education, taking night classes on electricity taught by William Edward Ayrton, whom she later married. Throughout her career, William was incredibly supportive, and was careful to make sure that Hertha’s work was rightly attributed to her.
At the end of the 19th century, arc lights were taking over gas lamps as the street lighting method of choice. These lights, which produced an arc of electricity between two carbon rods made horrible hissing noises, which Ayrton discovered was caused by oxidation of the carbon electrodes and could be prevented with better design.
If Ayrton had come along sooner (or cinema later), movies might not be known as “flicks” – that name referred to the flickering of the arc in cinema projectors, flickering that electrodes she invented helped quell. Her work on the electric arc would earn her the first prize given to a woman by the Royal Society, a Hughes medal in 1906, though when she initially petitioned to present this work to the Society she was turned down because of her gender so a male colleague read it for her. This same colleague, John Perry, nominated Ayrton to be a Fellow of the Royal Society but, because she was a married woman she was deemed “ineligible.”
Another of Ayrton’s contributions to society was the Ayrton fan, used to clear war trenches of poison gas. This invention, coming from a woman who’d designed it in her home, wasn’t taken seriously at first, but colleagues were able to convince the military and over 100,000 were eventually sent to the Western Front.
Ayrton co-founded the International Federation of University Women in 1919 and the National Union of Scientific Workers in 1920. She died in 1923 from blood poisoning.