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Ayrton, Hertha,

electric arc royal society

née (Phoebe) Sarah Marks (1854–1923) British electrical engineer; the first woman to present a paper to the Royal Society.

Sarah Marks (she later adopted the name Hertha) was the daughter of a Polish Jew who fled to England following persecution under the Tsarist regime and died when she was 7, leaving his widow with six sons and two daughters to care for. Mrs Marks was a strong-minded woman who believed that women needed a better, not worse, education than men because ‘women have the harder battle to fight in the world’. Consequently, she took the offer of her sister Marion Hartog to raise and educate her elder daughter Sarah, then 9, at her school in London. The young Sarah was gritty, stubborn, undisciplined and disliked conformity, but she was educated by the talented family she had joined. She learned French from her uncle and mathematics and Latin from her cousin Numa, senior wrangler at Cambridge.

An introduction to Mrs Barbara Bodichon, who became a life-long friend, led to her entry to Girton College, Cambridge in 1876, and she sat the Tripos examination in 1880. At this time women students took the examination unofficially within their college; the names of the successful students were not published, nor were degrees awarded. She went to Finsbury Technical College, intending to follow a career of research and invention, having patented in 1884 an instrument for dividing a line into any number of equal parts.

In 1885 she married W E Ayrton (1847–1908), professor of physics at the college and Fellow of the Royal Society. During a visit to Chicago in 1893 Ayrton lost the only copy of 3 years’ work on ‘Variation of Potential Difference of the Electric Arc, with Current, Size of Carbons, and Distance Apart’ (a servant used it to light a fire) and thereafter he lost any inclination to repeat the work. Hertha Ayrton, who had previously assisted him in the work, began the whole research afresh. She improved the technique, obtained consistent results expressed in curves and equations and published some of the results in the Electrician in 1895. She presented papers to the British Association and to the Institution of Electrical Engineers and became recognized as the authority on the electric arc.

She was elected a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899, their first female member. In 1900 she spoke at the International Electrical Congress in Paris. In 1901 her paper ‘The Mechanism of the Electric Arc’ was read to the Royal Society by an associate of her husband, as women were not then permitted to do so. Her book The Electric Arc was published in 1902, a history of the electric arc from the time of ; it became the accepted textbook on the subject. She was proposed for the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1902, but was not accepted because she was a married woman.

In 1904 Ayrton read her own paper ‘The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks’ before the Royal Society and became the first woman to do so. In 1906 she received the Hughes Medal for original research on the electric arc and on sand ripples.

From 1905–10 she worked for the War Office and the Admiralty on standardizing types and sizes of carbons for searchlights, both with her husband and, after his death, alone; her suggestions were adopted by the War Office and the Admiralty.

Aznavour, Charles (originally Varenagh Aznavourian) [next] [back] Ayrton, Edmund

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