Go back to article: The life and material culture of Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923): suffragette, physicist, mathematician and inventor

Living and learning: Ayrton’s early educational opportunities

One of the distinctive elements in Ayrton’s life was that, from an early age, her family and friends actively supported and encouraged her pursuit of education without conditions.[2] Born Phoebe Sarah Marks in Portsea, Hampshire, England in April 1854, she was the third of eight children of a seamstress, Alice Theresa Marks (née Moss), and a Polish Jewish watchmaker and jeweller, Levi Marks (Mason, 2004; Sharp, 1926, 3). It is said by her (sole) biographer, Evelyn Sharp, that Sarah (as she was then known) inherited her mechanical ability from her watchmaker father (Sharp, 1926, 1-2). Ayrton’s father died in 1861 when she was seven years old leaving his family penniless. Her mother returned to her work as a seamstress and taught her family self-sufficiency and generosity, two values Ayrton continued to live by throughout her life.

Two years later when Ayrton was nine, she was invited by her maternal aunt Marion Hartog, who ran a school in north-west London with her husband Alphonse Hartog, to live with her cousins and to be educated with them. Despite the personal hardship, Ayrton’s mother Alice recognised her daughter’s immense intellectual abilities and talents and supported the move to London as it provided increased access to education and further opportunities. It was through her cousins that Ayrton was introduced to science and mathematics and by the time she was sixteen, she was living independently and working as a governess.

It was around this time that Ayrton became friends with the family of Karl Blind, Jewish-German émigrés, and it was their daughter Ottilie Blind who nicknamed Ayrton ‘Hertha’ after Algernon Swinburne’s poem of the same name (Mason, 2004). Ottilie Blind and Ayrton became lifelong friends and together they attended suffrage meetings and coached each other for the Cambridge University entrance examination for women in 1874, in part due to the paucity of evening lectures or classes open to women at this time (Sharp, 1926, 26-29). In 1873, Ottilie Blind introduced Ayrton to the woman who would be perhaps Ayrton’s most significant mentor, the outspoken feminist, Barbara Bodichon.

Bodichon’s friendship with Ayrton marked a new epoch in Ayrton’s life, providing access to university education and all the related opportunities this entailed. In 1869 and four years prior to meeting Ayrton, Bodichon has been one of the main founders of Girton College, Cambridge. Girton was England's first residential college for women and Cambridge’s sole all-female college. Bodichon encouraged Ayrton to apply to Girton College and also introduced her to the novelist George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), another feminist and supporter of education for women who personally supported Ayrton’s application to Girton College. Eliot and Ayrton became friends and it is said that the character Mirah in Eliot’s final full novel Daniel Deronda published in 1876 bears a strong resemblance to Ayrton.

Ayrton was determined to study at Cambridge University, despite the fact that the university did not award degrees to women. In 1874, Ayrton passed the Cambridge University Examination for women with honours in English and Mathematics, having prepared for the entrance examinations alongside her lifelong friend Ottilie Blind. In 1876, Ayrton sat the Girton scholarship examinations but did not receive either of the two scholarships on offer (Ogilvie, 1990, p 33). Lacking in personal and family wealth, Ayrton would have been unable to afford the £92 a year required to study at Girton without working. Instead she was supported by a loan from fellow suffragette Helen Taylor of £25 per year with Bodichon, George Eliot and Lady Sophia Goldsmid, amongst others, contributing the remaining sum (Crawford, 2000, p 22). In October 1876, Ayrton entered Girton to study mathematics (James, 2010, p 106).[3]

Figure 2

Sepia photograph of the Girton College Cambridge fire brigade featuring Hertha Ayrton from 1878

Girton College archive GPCH 10/2/41 Girton College Fire Brigade 1878 featuring Hertha Ayrton

While at Girton, Ayrton was coached (albeit inconsistently) in person and by letter for the Mathematics Tripos by Richard T Glazebrook, one of the most prominent English physicists of his age and an FRS, who she described as ‘a jewel of a lecturer’ (Sharp, 1926, p 75). In 1880, Glazebrook was appointed a demonstrator at the Cavendish Laboratory when Lord Rayleigh became Cavendish Professor in the same year, switching his attention from mathematics to electrical demonstrations, and he began to tutor Ayrton by letter from then onwards.[4] Around this time, Ayrton also began her earliest work on scientific and medical instruments, designing and constructing a sphygmomanometer, an instrument for recording the pulse in arteries. Ayrton was also an active member of the Girton College community: she was leader of the College Choral Society and founded the college fire brigade (Mason, 1991, p 202; Mason, 2004). Ayrton also formed a mathematics club with fellow mathematician Charlotte Scott, who received special permission in 1880 to become Girton’s first wrangler (a Cambridge undergraduate in mathematics who obtains first-class honours in their third-year exams) but she was left out of the formal Tripos (undergraduate examination) results because of her gender (Jones, 2009, pp 8–39).

In 1880, Ayrton passed the Mathematical Tripos with only a third-class performance, in part the result of regular bouts of illness. The Mathematical Tripos was the elite degree for English gentlemen for much of the nineteenth century and was considered rigorous and physically demanding. The Mathematical Tripos varied over the nineteenth century but generally consisted of hundreds of testing questions taken in back-to-back examinations. It lasted around a week and such was the rigour that a few students in the nineteenth century died shortly after completing the examinations (Forfar, 1996). As such, it was of special significance for female students and was targeted by campaigners in order to demonstrate women’s intellectual equality with men (Jones, 2009, pp 147–165).

However, Ayrton was not granted a certificate or degree. At this time, Cambridge did not give degrees to women and would only award certificates to women in 1881, the year after Ayrton finished at Cambridge (Mason, 1991, p 217). Ayrton successfully completed an external examination and in 1881 she returned to London and received an external BSc degree from the University of London, one of the few British universities who granted degrees to women during this period and which provided a well-worn path for those who graduated from non-degree-awarding institutions at this time. It was upon her return to London that Ayrton began to consider further developing and patenting her first invention, a line-divider, which she began working on while a student at Girton. This would be the beginning of a prolific patenting and inventing career. Over her lifetime, Ayrton was granted twenty-six patents: five on mathematical dividers, thirteen on arc lamps and electrodes, and eight relating to the propulsion of air.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181002/002