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This year, the percentage of women in the engineering workforce hit an all-time high of 11%. Although there are still barriers, we are moving ever-closer to gender equality in the fields of science and engineering. However, it wasn’t always this way – I’d like to look at the life of a scientist who paved the way for today’s women.
Hertha Ayrton was born in 1854 to a working-class family – her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland who had fled to the UK from persecution. Her father died when she was young, leaving her the eldest of 7 children in a family with no real income.
Hertha Gets a Big Break
Hertha’s mother took up sewing to earn some money, leaving Hertha to look after her younger siblings. With no money and women’s education a rare thing in the Victorian times, it seemed unlikely that Hertha would be able to go to school. But, by luck, Hertha’s grandfather had been a progressive thinker, who’d insisted his daughters, Hertha’s mother and aunt, were educated. Her aunt had then set up her own school in London and Hertha was sent there to be educated free of charge.
At school, Hertha spent time with her aunt and cousin, both well educated, inspiring women very much in control of their own futures. She also became friends with many other intellectuals, including women like George Eliot and Barbara Bodichon, the founder of Girton College, Cambridge. Bodichon became interested in Hertha and was impressed by her abilities. She encouraged her to take the Cambridge entrance exams, which Hertha did and passed. However, it was at that moment that it seemed her dreams of studying at Cambridge would never be realised. Due to the poverty of her family back at home, Hertha was needed to earn money to help them get by. She became a governess for three years, sending most of her money back home to help her mother.
When her family’s circumstances changed, Hertha leapt at the chance to further her education and was awarded a place to study at Girton College, Cambridge. Hertha took immediately to student life and was involved in many aspects of the community at Girton. When she saw nearby hay bales on fire, Hertha decided Girton needed its own fire brigade to protect the college. She and a friend travelled all the way to London to ask about setting one up, but were met with doubts over women’s ability put out a fire. To demonstrate her competence Hertha shinned up a ladder then and there, and the Girton Fire Brigade was born. Hertha’s time at Girton wasn’t easy – she struggled with her health and on multiple occasions had to take time off to recover from illness. On top of that, exams weren’t her forte and she found it hard to stay focused on one thing at a time. She passed the mathematics finals but was never awarded any degree, as at that time Cambridge University did not award degrees to women. With no degree, Hertha returned to London where she earned money through teaching and embroidery. She was fiercely ambitious and never let an hour of her time go to waste – while teaching she was also inventing. Her first invention was a mathematical divider, for architects and engineers to use when enlarging and diminishing drawings.
Over her lifetime, she filed an astonishing 26 patents for inventions covering mathematical dividers, electrical arcs and air propulsion. She also took evening classes at her local technical college, where she studied physics and electricity. She would set up and perform experiments in her own home as she had no lab to work in.
Around the end of the nineteenth century, Hertha spotted a problem which no one had a solution to. At this time, most streetlights (and other lights) working by using an ‘electric arc’. These arcs were made of 2 carbon electrodes with a small gap between them – small enough that current could still flow around the circuit. A high voltage was passed through the circuit, heating up the carbon electrodes until the carbon vaporised and mixed with the air between the electrodes. This mixture of air and carbon vapour is highly luminous, so when current flowed through it ionised the atoms, they shone very brightly. The problem with the arcs was their tendency to hiss and spark for no apparent reason. Through careful observation and study, Hertha’s experiments explained that the hissing was caused when oxygen came into contact with the crater formed in the carbon, causing burning. Hertha proved her result by excluding each of the components of air in turn – she found that the hissing only occurred when oxygen was present and concluded that this was the cause.
Hertha suggested that if the arc was protected from direct contact with air, there would be no hissing. Hertha’s research was a breakthrough and she was invited to read her paper in front of the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE). She must have impressed them – in 1899 she became the first woman ever to be elected to join the IEE. Hertha didn’t stop there – her next big work was an invention to help combat the poison gas which the enemies were using in the ongoing First World War.
Her work was based on her observation of ripples in the sand at the beach, which she realised were caused by vortices in the water. She then applied this understanding to gases travelling through the air. Using her knowledge, she created a fan which would beat on the side of the trench to create a vortex to push the poison gas out of the trench. All this was done without access to a laboratory or any professional help – Hertha built tiny trenches in her own home and experimented with fans made out of little sticks and bits of card.
In 1902, renowned engineer John Perry proposed Hertha as a fellow of the Royal Society for her brilliant contributions to science. Hertha was refused. The refusal was not on academic grounds. As a married woman, Hertha was not a legal entity in her own right and therefore could not become a fellow.
Hertha was an incredibly driven and brave woman – to have the belief that she could be a scientist, at a time when no other women were doing it, and to make such a success of that belief, is remarkable. Hertha Ayrton is still widely unknown and under-appreciated, but by sharing her story, we can inspire and encourage the next undiscovered great mind.
BBC Radio 1 Great Lives, 5 Jan 2018