Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854-1923) – Tales from Wo-Fans Land

An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.

letter from Hertha Ayrton to the Westminster Gazette, 14 March 1909

It’s probably for the best that we don’t get to read our own obituaries. Because if Hertha Ayrton – scientist, engineer and suffragist – had read the posthumous piece in the journal Nature which stated she should have spent more time feeding her husband and “putting [him] into carpet slippers” (1) than focusing on her scientific trailblazing, she may have been a bit peeved.

Hertha Marks Ayrton: scientist, activist, gave precisely no shits about her husband’s slippers. (Photo: www.thehuffmanpost.com)

Born Phoebe Sarah Marks in Portsea, Hampshire, UK in 1854 to a Polish immigrant family, her father died when she was young, leaving the family penniless. Her mother returned to work to support her eight children, instilling in Sarah an independence and taste for tradition-bucking which would stay with her for life. Spotting a prodigious talent for mathematics, an aunt paid for Sarah to be formally educated in science, where she demonstrated an independent strength of character described as “fiery” (2). By the age of 16, she was working, financially self-sufficient and chose to reinvent herself by rejecting her faith and adopting the name Hertha, after the heroine of an anti-religion poem (3). The god-fearing folk of Hampshire must have been clutching their pearls and fainting en masse at the teenage rebel.

She further gave the proverbial finger to established norms by securing a place at the new all-female Girton College, Cambridge. With word of her talents spreading but with no personal wealth to afford the fees, her application was funded by prominent feminists of the time, (4) including Mary Anne Evans – AKA author George Eliot. (They became lifelong friends; the character of Mirah in Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, is said to be based on Hertha [5]). Flourishing at Cambridge, Hertha began her impressive scientific career. Despite bouts of illness, she passed the Tripos exams (the elite degree for English gentlemen, reported to have actually killed men due to its intensity [6]). Of course, despite outliving those less resilient men, Hertha couldn’t actually receive the degree because delicate lady-people were deemed ineligible for such things, but this did not deter her. Hertha certainly kept herself busy at Cambridge, amongst other things designing an early prototype blood pressure meter (probably so she could monitor how much the rampant Victorian sexism was stressing her out).

Hertha with the riot grrls of Girton College, 1878. (Photo: Girton College archives, © The Mistress & Fellows)

After graduation, she moved to London, studying the new science of electrical engineering at Finsbury College. While the Electrician magazine expressed dismay that the admission of women would “alarm” genteel society (and risk the women blowing themselves up) (7), Hertha instead turned inventor, creating architectural dividers, electrodes and arc lamps. Her work on the latter proved to be transformational in a world where the capital’s streets were just beginning their large-scale electrical illumination. While men of science were collectively scratching their beards as to why the new-fangled lights were incessantly flickering, Hertha got on with actually solving the problem (oxygen reacting with carbon rods, if you’re curious). Her revolutionary paper on how to fix the issue was the first to be presented by a woman at the prestigious Institution of Electrical Engineers (8), where she subsequently became the first female to be admitted to membership. The Spectator felt compelled to reassure readers that although Hertha was an accomplished scientist, she was also “not odd” and “in every way a woman” (9).

With such glass-ceiling-shattering success, Hertha applied to present the paper at the Royal Society too, but she was denied on account of (yep) being female. And when male peers petitioned for her to become a fellow of the Society, that too was declined – not just because of her pesky female-ness but because she’d also had the audacity to get married (to Professor Will Ayrton, her Finsbury tutor and he of the underfed, under-filled carpet slippers). Society president William Huggins believed that admitting a woman to fellowship would “trivialise” the elite institution (10) but hid his misogyny behind contemporary law, which insisted that married women were not actually people. No, really.

“The Electric Arc” – the award-winning paper which literally and figuratively lit up the streets. (Although note the author being credited only as “Mrs Ayrton”. . .) Photo: www.agnesscott.edu

But, reader, she persisted. By 1906 Hertha finally broke the patriarchy of the Royal Society, with her electric arc studies being awarded the prestigious Hughes Medal. (At time of writing, there has only been one other female recipient, and that was in 2008. Sigh).

Her later studies of air vortices led to her invention of the life-saving “Ayrton Anti-Gas fan”, 140,000 of which were used to clear poisonous chemical gases from the First World War trenches. Not bad for a woman who, unlike her male peers, wasn’t even allowed access to a laboratory in her own right and had to ask her husband nicely if she could borrow his.

Hertha wasn’t just a kick-ass scientist. Her sense of social justice led to her setting up social clubs for working girls, and being an activist in the women’s suffrage movement. She joined Emily Pankhurst in visiting the Prime Minister in 1910, harboured campaigners during the infamous ‘Cat & Mouse’ Act of 1913, and allowed the Pankhursts to channel suffrage funds through her own bank account in order to avoid detection. (11) Her daughter Barbara joined her on marches and was arrested in 1912, with Hertha announcing “Barbie is in Holloway [Prison] . . . I am very proud of her.” (12)

Hertha died in 1923 but, despite the challenges she faced getting recognition during her lifetime, her legacy has recently gained momentum. Promising female students can apply for numerous scholarships in her name and in 2017 Sheffield Hallam University named their new STEM centre after Hertha. (13)

But best of all, in a final gesture of defiance to those in Hampshire who would have had her stay in the kitchen cooking dinner for her husband, a prestigious English Heritage blue plaque was recently unveiled at her former Portsea home (14) with a local street named after her. One can only hope that, every time its residents walk beneath the steady unflickering glow of the electric street lights, they pay a quiet homage to the woman who made it possible.

Acknowledgement at last (although note “nominated as” a fellow . . . not actually accepted. Damn you, William Huggins). Photo: www.openplaques.org

Written by Claire Siviter (she/her) from the New Forest, UK. Follow her on Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


Works Cited

  1. www.nature.com – obituary of Hertha Marks Ayrton, published 1 December 1923
  2. Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986). “Women in Science: Antiquity Through The 19th Century”, MIT Press
  3. Swinburne, A.C. (1869) – “Hertha”
  4. Crawford, E (2000). “The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide”, Routledge
  5. Science Museum Group Journal 10: “The Life and Material Culture of Hertha Marks Ayrton”
  6. Forfar, D. O. (1996). “What Became of the Senior Wranglers”, Mathematical Spectrum 29
  7. www.womenshistorynetwork.org, “Hertha Ayrton: scientist yet in every way a woman”
  8. Mason, Joan. “Sarah Ayrton”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
  9. www.womenshistorynetwork.org, “Hertha Ayrton: scientist yet in every way a woman”
  10. www.womenshistorynetwork.org, “Hertha Ayrton: scientist yet in every way a woman”
  11. Atkinson, Diane (2018). “Rise up, Women: the Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes”, Bloomsbury
  12. www.blogs.royalsociety.org: “Almost a fellow: Hertha Ayrton and an embarrassing episode” (2012)
  13. “Engineering students get an £11m new home at Sheffield Hallam”, Sheffield Hallam University, 26 June 2017
  14. “City celebrates a true female inspiration”, www.portsmouth.co.uk, April 2019

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