Go back to article: The life and material culture of Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923): suffragette, physicist, mathematician and inventor
Mrs Hertha Ayrton was I think the first member of the fair, but no longer frail sex, to distinguish herself in the engineering world, though perhaps the woman engineer would not have arrived yet, had not the war, which upset so many masculine traditions, proved that woman was capable of doing many things which had hitherto been considered strictly within the provenience of the more assertive male… (Stewart, 1923, p 284).
Hertha Ayrton succeeded in establishing and maintaining a career in scientific research and electrical engineering in an age when opportunities open to women in these fields were limited. From her early life of poverty, Ayrton achieved successes as an inventor, experimenter, researcher, patent-holder, educator and suffragette in an age when a woman could rarely be one of these things let alone all of them! She fought the prejudices of her time, in particular those relating to gender: she encouraged fellow female scientists and engineers by example and she worked hard to remove barriers to entry so that other women might follow in her footsteps.
Ayrton’s recognition and achievements were supported by her fellow advocates for social justice, especially women’s suffrage. Ayrton was a fighter for social justice from an early age and was heavily involved in the suffragette movement. She was politically active and engaged and was not afraid to make her views known. She took part in many marches and demonstrations, including the great suffrage processions of 1910 and 1911. Her determination and innate curiosity were applied in equal measures to social justice, politics, mathematics, physics and electrical engineering.
Ayrton was supported by women throughout her lifetime and in turn she was a powerful advocate for the rights and opportunities of other women. Ayrton’s maternal aunt Marion Hartog arranged for her early education in London and argued strongly for the education of women. Ayrton’s application for Cambridge in the mid-1870s was supported by the author Mary Anne Evans, better known by her masculine pen-name George Eliot. Ayrton’s application for a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge’s all-women college, was supported by Barbara Bodichon, an outspoken feminist and one of the founders of the college (James, 2010, p 106). When the scholarship application was unsuccessful, Ayrton was supported financially by a loan from Bodichon and her friends (James, 2010, p 106). In 1884, Ayrton’s patent for a line-divider was financially supported by Bodichon and women’s education activist and feminist Lady Louisa Sophia Goldsmid; Ayrton named her first daughter Barbara after her mentor and supporter. Furthermore, Ayrton’s biography published posthumously in 1926 was written by feminist journalist Evelyn Sharp (Sharp, 1926).
Ayrton’s incredible life and work offer a fascinating insight into the emerging roles and opportunities available to women in STEM subjects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and Ayrton herself was the instigator of and catalyst for many of these changes. Ayrton actively engaged with the scientific and engineering communities with which she worked and was an active member of professional and scientific institutions of her age, in particular the Royal Society and the IEE.
Ayrton’s involvement with the Royal Society was very much the lesser of the two: while she was the first woman to present a paper before the Royal Society and one of the first women to be awarded a prize – the Hughes Prize in 1906 – the support and membership of this society was closed off from her. It was not until 1945, over forty years after Ayrton’s failed FRS nomination, that the first women were elected as Fellows of the Royal Society: crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Marjory Stephenson (Mason, 1992). Even then, and afterwards, as the number of female Fellows gradually increased, women were not granted full participation of the society as authorship and editorial work for female Fellows did not grow in line with the increase in membership. Thus, female Fellows were denied full participation in the Royal Society (Fyfe and Røstvik, 2018).
In contrast, the IEE was welcoming to Ayrton: she was the first women to be invited to present a paper before the Institution and was their first female member. When Ayrton died in 1923, she left much of her estate to the IEE, the institution that had encouraged and recognised her achievements throughout her career without prejudice or reservation. However, it must be noted that when Ayrton died, the IEE lost their sole female member – the institution had not elected another female member between Ayrton’s election in 1899 and her death in 1923. Another woman would not be elected to full membership until 1958 and so while the IEE was progressive in the case of Ayrton it was not more generally until the mid-twentieth century (Mason, 2004).
In 1999, the IEE organised a programme of events to commemorate Ayrton and the centenary of her membership of the society, co-sponsored by the Newcomen Society. These included a one-day meeting, an evening lecture, and a replication of Ayrton’s hissing arc experiment. In 2015, the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) launched the Ayrton Prize, a new prize recognising outstanding web projects and digital engagement in the history of science, technology and medicine (Gooday, 2016). More recently, Ayrton has been remembered through a BBC Radio 4 Great Lives episode broadcast in January 2018 and a blue plaque was put up on her birthplace in Portsmouth in February 2018.
Hertha Marks Ayrton was truly an innovator, both technically and in terms of gender. She fought hard against the gender limitations of her chosen profession, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Her prominent and public roles as a 'woman scientist’ helped to broaden perceptions of, and opportunities for, women in engineering and science. Ayrton’s work and achievements laid the foundations for the increased opportunities available to women in engineering during and after the First World War and beyond.
Some of the content from this paper appeared in an earlier form as ‘Hertha Marks Ayrton: An electric woman’ in Charman-Anderson, Suw (ed), A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention (2nd edition) (Great Britain: Finding Ada, 2015). Special thanks to Anne Locker and Jon Cable at IET Archives and Beata Bradford at the Science Museum archives for their assistance and to the editorial team especially Kate Steiner and anonymous reviewers for their generous assistance. Last and not least, many thanks go to my wife Camen Lei for her proofreading and cups of tea. All and any errors in the text are mine.
Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181002/007