Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hertha Ayrton

After reading about it on See Jane Compute, I signed the Ada Lovelace Day Pledge. I promised to write a blog post about a woman in technology I admire, and publish it today, March 24. Of course, that meant I had to find such a woman to write about. I had to do a little bit of research - mainly because I do not actually work in a technology field, and so I don't really have a list of people in technology I admire at the ready. I didn't really want to settle for any of the obvious choices, either. I wanted to write about someone that I'd never heard of, and I didn't want to pick the same person as fifty other bloggers.

So that is how I ended up discovering the story of Hertha Ayrton. As I read about her, I came to admire her. She had tenacity, patience, made careful and methodical studies of the phenomena that interested her, and found practical applications of the scientific observations she made. She has been described as a physicist, mathematician, and engineer. And she lived her life on her own terms, even though those terms were often in direct conflict with the social conventions of her time. My favorite quote atttributed to her was written in defense of her close friend Marie Curie: "An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat."

Hertha Ayerton was born in Portsea, England in 1854. Her given name was Phoebe Sarah Marks. Her father, a Polish clockmaker who had fled anti-Semitic persecution in his homeland, died when she was seven, leaving behind her mother to support herself and eight children as a seamstress. Phoebe was sent to live with relatives in London who owned a school, and it was there that she was educated alongside her cousins. During this time, she met many of the intellectual elite of London, and changed her name in honor of her decision to reject organized religion - "Hertha" is the eponymous heroine of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne that she felt expressed her position on this (you can read it here). She was able to attend Girton College at Cambridge University (the first residential college for women in England) thanks to the generosity of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. At the time, however, though women were permitted to attend, Cambridge did not grant women any kind of degree, so Ayrton had to take an additional, external examination to receive a her B.Sc. from University of London. She continued her studies at Finsbury College, taking physics classes taught by William Edward Ayrton, whom she eventually married. They had one daughter, Barbara Bodichon Ayrton, named for Hertha's benefactress and friend.

Hertha went on to assist her husband in his research on electric arc lamps (the type used in searchlights) and, with her husband's support, she eventually took on the lead role, becoming an expert in the field. She developed new designs for the carbons used in the lamps that improved the stability and efficiency of the lamps. She wrote a paper on the topic, which was the first to be read by a woman to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and soon after became their first female member. She wrote several papers on the electric arc which she collected into a book, which became a definitive reference on the topic.

When her husband's health declined and he was advised to convalesce at the sea shore, Hertha began to study the formation of sand ripples, and the resulting paper became the first read by a woman to the Royal Society of London. She also was awarded the Hughes Medal, but, nevertheless, her nomination as a fellow of the Society was rejected, because she was deemed ineligible as a married woman - even though her husband was himself a member. She put her research on the vortices which form sand ripples to practical use when she designed a fan that was capable of creating similar flow patterns in air and could be used to drive poisonous (and heavy, relative to breathable air) chlorine gas away from foxholes. Though she put a tremendous amount of effort into bringing the Ayrton Fan and its capabilities to the attention of the military, she was disappointed in that it did not come into widespread use during WWI.

Hertha was, not surprisingly, an ouspoken supporter of women's voting rights, actively participating at suffrage rallies. When she died in 1923, she left most of her estate to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College was endowed in her honor by Ottillie Hancock, her lifelong friend.

If you'd like to read more about Hertha Ayrton:
Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics
Biographical Article, by Marjorie Malley
Biographies of Women Mathematicians
Reminiscences written by A. P. Trotter, President of The Institution of Electrical Engineers
NNDB entry
Wikipedia entry

62 comments:

ScienceGirl said...

Great post and a great choice of scientist! I too love her witty quote :)

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Thank you for this! Had not even heard of her, so your post was both fascinating and educational.

Carrie said...

Great story.

Rebecca said...

I had never heard of Hertha Ayrton. Thanks so much for sharing her story!

Amelie said...

I had never heard of Hertha Ayrton either. Thanks!

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