23rd March 1899. Hertha Ayrton?

Hertha Ayrton was Jewish, born Sarah Marks, but adopted the name Hertha, the Teutonic earth goddess. eulogised by the poet Swinburne.

Portrait of Hertha Ayrton.

It was Today in 1899 that scientist Hertha Ayrton (28.4.1854-23.8.1923), was the first to read her own paper to the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE), which had only recently opened its doors for the first time to women.(1)

Hertha, as a woman, had many obstacles to overcome, becoming a fighter for women’s suffrage, and denied access to institutional laboratories in her own right, and despite studying at Cambridge couldn’t receive a degree. Luckily she married a physicist.

Largely unknown, she was one of about 60 women, at that time, working in science, but mostly hidden from its formal records.

In 1902 she became the first woman nominated for fellowship of The Royal Society, but The President, astronomer, William Huggins  was against women ‘trivialising’ his elite scientific institute.

Later Ayrton was awarded The Hughes Medal by the Royal Society for work on electric lamp- arcs, a precursor to the field of plasma physics when she discovered the connection between pressure in arcs and the current length.

Arc lamps were the first practical use of lighting in streets, factories and also cinemas, emanating from the bright, white spark generated by a current travelling between two carbon rods, but the hissing meant the arcs were unstable and less efficient.


Ayrton addressing the Royal Society.

She decided the hissing was caused by a crater formed on one side of the carbon with the drop in current produced due to the affect of oxygen reaching the crater through oxidisation.

She concluded a more efficient arc would be obtained by thinner carbon and an infinitely shorter arc.

Then from her observation of the formation of ripples in beach-sand, it led to an analysis of fluid dynamics which she put to good use with her invention of the Ayrton Fan in WWI, which helped to dispel the heavy Chlorine gas which had been deployed.

(1) Herton was agnostic when in her teens adopted  the name of Hertha after the eponymous heroine in a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, a critic of organised religion. She was the first woman elected to become member of IEE.


guardian.co.uk. The Northern Blog. Alan Sykes. 7.3.2013.

womeninhistorynetwork.org/Pic of Hertha.

wikipedia.org/portrait of Hertha.




About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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