Biography, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923): scientist yet ‘in every way a woman’

On this day, March 23 1899, the scientist Hertha Ayrton read a paper about her electrical researches to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) who had opened their doors to a woman for the first time. Even today female scientists receive mixed attention (controversy dogs neuroscientist and Oxford professor Susan Greenfield, with attention focusing as much on her dress as her science) but read the excited press reports about Hertha’s lecture in 1899 and one could be forgiven for thinking that she had given birth to a talking rabbit rather than given a scientific lecture.

One news report described her as a little dark-haired, dark-eyed lady, wearing a pince-nez who ‘created a sensation’ and another took pains to stress that despite her sex, the ‘eminent scientists’ took her seriously. This was something that led The Spectator to ponder  whether women ‘have a distinct proclivity towards science and mathematics, finding them less exhausting than either history or classics’. Despite this, another paper sought to reassure it’s readers that although Hertha was scientifically inclined, she was not at all ’odd’ but ‘charming’ and ‘in every way a woman’. After her lecture, Hertha was admitted as a member of the IEE and remained the only woman among their ranks for twenty years until Gertrude Entwisle was elected in 1919.

Although largely forgotten, unlike her friend and double Nobel-prize winner Marie Curie, Hertha succeeded to an extent in forging a career for herself in science at a time when women’s involvement in this new ‘profession’ was typically met with scepticism, if not outright hostility. Although from a relatively humble, Jewish background, Hertha had become an early student at Girton College, Cambridge, where she has studied for the Mathematical Tripos. She then moved in 1884 to the less rarified environment of Finsbury City and Guilds Technical College to embark on a course of evening classes in Electro-Technics. Here she was one of just three women alongside 118 men. That any woman would wish to engage in such a utilitarian activity was viewed with surprise, amusement and indulgence by The Electrician magazine, which remarked at the time that at Finsbury ‘Women may study electrical science without risk of alarming anybody or of doing any harm to themselves’.

Hertha was an inventor, experimenter and theoretical researcher who patented a number of scientific instruments during her life time. One of her researches was into the mechanism of the electric arc. Arc lights were used widely as public lighting but were very unstable; this instability was one of the reasons why the early cinema, which made use of arc lights, became known as the ‘flicks’  (because of the flickering of the film).  Hertha discovered that this was connected to the way the carbons of an arc light burned, provided new theoretical insights and solved the problem – although these lights were soon superseded by filament lamps. Another major research area was into the formation of sand ripples and she demonstrated that ripple marks were not formed by friction but were due to varying water pressure. For this, and her work on the electric arc, Hertha was awarded the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal for original discovery in 1906.

The award of a Royal Society medal was a rare achievement given the limitations of her sex. The laboratory was a gendered space at this time and, as a woman, Hertha did not have access to any institutional laboratory in her own right. The increasing number of female science students at the new colleges for women had access as students, but only rarely were women able to use a laboratory for original or independent research. Hertha made use of her husband’s laboratory—and student assistants— at the Central Institution in London (now Imperial College). When he died in 1908 she had to create her own laboratory in her home. This put her at a disadvantage; she was unable to turn it into a modern (for the time) experimental facility and she was removed from the scientific networks of her day.

In 1902 Hertha became the first woman to be nominated for a Fellowship of the Royal Society. The Society’s council was at odds over the issue; the President, astronomer William Huggins, was firmly against women ‘trivialising’ his elite scientific institution. Hertha’s outspoken commitment to women’s suffrage—in fact, her outspokenness full stop—may have been one of the reasons for antagonism towards her (as is, perhaps, the problem with Greenfield for some of today’s scientific establishment). Despite support from a handful of council members, her bid ultimately failed and it was to be over forty years later, in 1945, that the first two women were elected Royal Society fellows. Today the number of women fellows still hovers at around 5% of the Royal Society fellowship.

Claire Jones is editor of HerStoria Magazine and author of Femininity, Mathematics and Science, c 1880-1914 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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