Hertha Ayrton possessed an extraordinary mind, and she directed that genius towards engineering and invention.
Born Phoebe Sarah Marks in 1854, she was one of seven children. After her father died in 1861, Ayrton went to live with her cousins in London, where she was introduced to the study of science and mathematics.
During her teens, Phoebe Sarah changed her name to Hertha after the heroine of a poem. She went on to study mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge, during which time she constructed a blood pressure monitor, founded a fire brigade and formed a mathematical club. However, Ayrton received only a certificate from Cambridge on completion of her studies, as the university refused to award full academic degrees to women.
Following her graduation, Ayrton worked for a time as a teacher in London. Until, in 1884, she began her long career as an engineer and inventor. In that year, a 30-year-old Ayrton patented the design for a ‘line-divider’: a drawing tool used in art, architecture and engineering. This was the first of 26 patents that Ayrton would register over the course of her lifetime.
In 1884, Ayrton also began attending evening classes on electricity. Here, she met her future husband, the physicist and electrical engineer, Professor William Edward Ayrton, and the pair began carrying out experiments together on physics and electricity.
Around this time, Ayrton became interested in the electric arc: a common lighting system of the time. The problem with electric arc lighting was that it tended to flicker and hiss. Through her investigations, Ayrton ascertained that this was the result of a reaction between oxygen and carbon.
In the years that followed, Ayrton investigated and developed a number of other new technologies, including the Ayrton Fan, used to dispel poison gas on the Western Front in WW1. In 1919, she founded the International Federation of University Women, and in 1920, the National Union of Scientific Workers.
Ayrton died of blood poisoning in 1923, leaving behind a legacy of creativity and innovation, and new opportunities for women in engineering.
Last updated: 21 February 2018