Hertha Marks Ayrton

By Jenny Reuling

About Hertha Marks Ayrton

Hertha Marks Ayrton was an engineer, mathematician,

physicist, and inventor. She was born April 28th, 1854 in Hampshire, UK and died August 23rd, 1923 in Sussex, UK at the age of 69. Ayrton was born with the name Phoebe Sarah Marks, but she changed it as a teeneager to Hertha Marks Ayrton. Ayrton was the daughter of a Polish immigrant watchmaker and a seamstress. When her father died in 1861, her mother was left with eight children, so Ayrton helped take care of the younger children.

At age nine, Ayrton's aunts invited her to go to school in

London with her cousins be educated with them. Ayrton's cousins introduced her to science and math. By sixteen, she was working as a governess.

Ayrton attended Girton College, University of Cambridge

where she studied math and was coached by physicist Richard Glazebrook. At Cambridge, Ayrton constructed a sphygmomanometer, led the choral society, and founded the Girton fire brigade. Together with Charlotte Scott, she and Ayrton formed a math club.

In 1880, Ayrton passed the Math Tripos, but Cambridge

didn't give a degree because they weren't given to women at the time. She did pass an external examination at the University of London, which awarded her a Bachelor of Science degree in 1881.

Hertha Marks Ayrton's Career

In London, Ayrton earned money by teaching and embroidery. She taught at Notting Hill

and Ealing High School. In 1884, Ayrton began attending evening classes on electricity at Finsbury Technical College. In 1895 she wrote a series of articles for The Electrician explaining how the result of oxygen coming into contact with carbon rods were used to create the arc for arc lighting. Ayrton was awarded the Hughes Medal in 1906 in honor of her research on the motion of ripples in sand and water and her work on the electric arc.

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Discoveries & Inventions

In 1884, Ayrton invented a draftsman's device, or a line-divider, that could be used for

dividing up a line into equal parts and enlarge and reduce figures. This was her first major invention and it was mostly used by artists, architects, and engineers. She was also active in devising and solving math problems. Many of those were published in the Mathematical Questions and Their Solutions from the "Educational Times". From 1884 until her death, Ayrton registered 26 patents, five on math dividers, 13 on arc lamps and electrodes, and the rest on propulsion of air.

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


Ayrton's interest in ripples in water and air inspired the

Ayrton fan, or flapper, used in the trenches in WWI to dispel poison gas. She helped found the International Federation of University Women in 1919 and the National Union of Scientific Workers in 1920. Ayrton's work led to improvements in the size, shape, and positioning of searchlight carbons. She also designed improved carbons and lamp houses for cinema projects. Her books were well received by society. Almost everyone excepted her ideas.

Two years after Ayrton's death in 1923, her lifelong friend

Ottilie Hancock endowed the Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College. Ayrton was a role model for women and she opened professional doors a little wider for them.