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


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!

vella said...

Отчего бывает ветер? не знаете?

オテモヤン said...


Custom Thesis Writing said...

this kind of blog always useful for blog readers, it helps people during research. your post is one of the same for blog readers.

Thesis Papers Writing

aa said...


generic propecia said...

Hello people want to express my satisfaction with this blog very creative and I really like the views of the focus very good indeed Thank you for the helpful information. I hope you keep up the good work on making your blog a success!

xc15ds5s said...

Such attentively manages your article ~

рестораны в барселоне said...

It can't really have success, I consider like this.

buy cheap cialis said...

Thanks for sharing such an interesting post with us. You have made some valuable points which are very useful for all readers

viagra said...

Wow, nice post,there are many person searching about that now they will find enough resources by your post.Thank you for sharing to us.Please one more post about that..

buy viagra canada said...

this post really very good and effective for me thanks for sharing this nice post

viagra prices said...

Hello, i think that this post is very good, i would like to read more about it

Mobile Application said...

My friend recommended to this blog.... you have some awesome articles shear. keep it up the great work

android application | android web application

hyatt hotels cincinnati ohio said...

Great job has been done here. I would like to read more about this interesting topic, i think that this post is very good. Thanks for share this great site list which is very informational for me.

Yamato said...

This topic could be popular now and most of them love it. I don't think this could change us like that. But great you have done great job.

Rohit Kaushik said...

Statistics can be considered as a subject that needs the students to understand the concepts clearly. It often requires assistance for students from professionals and experts to clear all their doubts related to statistics. But, most of the students are not sure from where they can get statistical help.

Online Assistance

Albert Barkley said...

Hi, you have posted such precious and informative article which gave me lot of information. I hope that you will keep it up and we will have more informative and helping news from you. Thanks | Thesis Writing Services

Anonymous said...

electronic cigarettes, smokeless cigarettes, e cigarette, e cig reviews, electronic cigarettes, smokeless cigarettes

Amber Bassett said...

Essay writing is an important part of any academic path. The writing of an essay is required mainly because the supervisor or tutor wants to assess the writing skills of a student,And this is best site for getting Online Writing Service

Amber Bassett said...

I am very agitated that I have discovered your post because I have been penetrating for some information on this for about two

hours. You have helped me a lot undeniably and by reading this article. I have found much new and valuable information about this

subject. I was guessing if you could write a little more on this subject? I’d be grateful if you could involved a little bit

Thanks for sharing it.
dissertation writing service for USA customers

Joel Sjogren said...

I was working and suddenly I visits your site frequently and recommended it to me to read also. The writing style is superior and the content is relevant. Thanks for the insight you provide the readers!
You can get assignments writing help from http://ukassignmentwriters.com/assignment-writing-help.php

Carrie Fredericks said...

I just wanted to say that I found your site via Goolge and I am glad I did. Keep up the good work and I will make sure to bookmark you for when I have more free time away from the books. Thanks again!
<a href="http://www.onlineessaywriting.co.uk/buy-dissertations-online.php>buy dissertation online</a>

Academic Services said...

Get the best Dissertation & Custom Essay Writing Service from our Qualified Writers. Trust the best and never regret. Try our Essay Help and see the difference in your grades.
Dissertation Writing Service

Finance Homework Help said...

Accounting Assignment Help by Certified Tutors. Send Your Assignment Now to Get Assignment Help done at Most Reasonable Prices.

coursework writing service said...

We provide custom coursework writing service. Coursework UK Help Available. Buy Coursework now at reaonable prices.Buy Coursework

College Homework Help said...

Email your Assignments & Get the fastest College Homework Help! 24/7 Tutors & Writers available in all Subjects including accounting, finance, business, statistics! Essay, Dissertation Editing Service Available.

Statistics Homework Help said...

Statistics Help Available! SPSS or Excel? Send us your Statistics Assignments and Get them completed on time at rock bottom prices!