Quicksilver Spotlight: Hertha Marks Ayrton, First Lady of Engineering


Originally posted at quicksilver-mfg.com/blog/

When you think of engineering in the 1800s, many things come to mind. The industrial revolution, the steam engine, and figures like Thomas Edison and, if you’re particularly nerdy, Nikola Tesla. Lesser known, however, were the female engineers of the time. Thankfully, we live in the information age, and so information on the more obscure figures of history is easier to come by than ever. Thanks to Google, last month Hertha Marks Ayrton was honored: a Polish-born British engineer, physicist, and inventor who, without the internet, might have been lost to history along with dozens of other female innovators who lived before women were allowed to wear pants.

Hertha was one of nine children and grew up with only her mother, as her father died when she was 7. She became a governess by age 16, but wished to further her education and enrolled in courses in mathematics and physics at Cambridge. There, she constructed a blood pressure meter, lead the school’s choral society, founded the Girton fire brigade and founded a mathematical club. While she did not receive a degree, as Cambridge did not award degrees to women at the time, she later took an exam at the University of London, which awarded her a Bachelor of Science degree in 1881 on her successful completion of the exam.

She returned to London and earned money however she could. At the same time, she took care of a sick sister. She took up teaching mathematics, running a club for working girls, and embroidery. In this time, she also patented her first invention. In her lifetime, she would patent 26 inventions.

In 1885, she began experimenting with electricity alongside her husband, Professor William Edward Ayrton. She began studying the electric arc in this time, and published a paper of her findings on the subject. She brought the paper before the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the first woman to do so, and she was elected to the IEE shortly thereafter–also the first woman to achieve membership. The next would be in the mid-1900s. She also had her paper brought before the Royal Society and received the Hughes Medal, becoming the first woman to receive a prize from the Society and one of only two female recipients in its history, despite the fact the award has been given out annually since 1902.

Her works became internationally recognized, and over the next five years, her work became gospel in the field of electrical engineering. While at first, many institutions were hesitant to accept the works of a woman, her brilliance was undeniable, even in the face of the backwards attitudes towards women of the time.

Ayrton’s work in breaking into the sciences allowed other women to follow suit, though even in 2016, there’s a long way to go. You can read more about Hertha Marks Ayrton at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hertha_Marks_Ayrton.