Hertha Marks

Julia Miglets

August 15, 2016

  • Share:    
In the late of April, Google had another notable logo change where graphics portray significant dates in history. The search engine has a way of bringing important people to light. When using the search engine we often see creative animations in place of the original logo, and we click on them because they are interesting. And so, on 28 April, those of us at WITI were introduced to an influential engineer, mathematician, physicist, and inventor via Google logo artwork: Hertha Marks Ayrton. Google celebrated Ayrton's 162nd birthday, which shed light on an otherwise overlooked figure in the STEM field.

Phoebe Sarah Marks was an English-born honor student at Girton College in Cambridge. She was actively involved in school activities, particularly those pertaining to academia. She co-founded a mathematics club with her good friend, Charlotte Scott. Girton College did not issue degrees to women at the time of her graduation (1880), only certificates. Determined to gain a degree, she pursued further education from the University of London and eventually attained a B.Sc. After she graduated, she worked as a tutor for children who needed help with math.

However, she wanted to use her mathematical knowledge and ability to create something useful for the world; this idea led to her invention of a tool that could divide a line into equal parts, as well as enlarge and reduce geometric shapes . The device was made to assist artists who worked with geometric shapes and patterns; however, it was also widely used by architects and engineers, which made it a valuable contribution to society. Along with inventing, she worked for a newspaper entitled The Educational Times, for which she created and solved real-world math problems for publication. When it came to mathematics she harnessed the ability to both create and teach.

While working, she took an evening physics course at Finsbury Technical College, where she met her eventual husband, William Ayrton. After her marriage she changed her name to Hertha Marks Ayrton. The name "Hertha" derives from her appreciation toward the heroine of a poem written by Algernon Charles Swinburne. The protagonist earned Ayrton's admiration for her criticism and questioning of organized religion. After Hertha changed her name and solidified their relationship, the Ayrtons took their intellectual capabilities in the STEM field to work. Together, Hertha and William performed experiments in his field of profession, most involving physics and electricity. While she did many experiments with her husband, Ayrton conducted several experiments on her own. One personal experiment provided enough evidence to validate Lord Rayleigh's mathematical theory of vortices. Along with mathematics, she held several experiments and studies on the science of electric arcs. Several of the papers she wrote based on her research on electric arcs earned publication in both The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and The Electrician. The discoveries she made eventually led to the publication of her groundbreaking book, The Electric Arc, chronicling her discoveries after much time spent experimenting with her primary scientific interest.

Ayrton was one of the pioneers who paved the way for women and chose to pursue a career in STEM. Unfortunately, she is not well recognized today due to women's roles being undermined. However, she was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899, and she was the first female nominated to become a fellow of the Royal Society of London. However, her nomination did not result in a win due to the fact that she was married. The Royal Society had decreed that married women should not be eligible as fellows. She was, however, the first woman to read one of her research papers in front of the Royal Society, vocalizing extensive research and experimentation on "The Origin and Growth of Ripple-Mark." It was a pivotal moment in her career, as the Royal Society was the most prestigious scientific society of her time. The paper was so applauded that it is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

She then received the Hughes Medal from the Royal Society for her discoveries on the electric arc and sand ripples. By learning more about sand ripples, her research led further discoveries involving electricity and magnetism. She was one of only two women honored with the award until 2011. But even after being endowed with this award, she continued to work well into her later years, driven by passion and interest. After the death of her husband, she revisited her ability to invent, generating a fan that could create spiral vortices to repel gas attacks. The fan worked to save the lives of countless World War I soldiers by driving poisonous gas in the opposite direction.

Along with her work in the STEM field, Ayrton wanted her voice to be heard, not only in the STEM world, but politically. She was an active suffragist who participated in many rallies with the Women's Social and Political Union. She was vice president of both the British Federation of University Women and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Two years after her death in 1923, she was honored by her friend Ottilie Hancock with the Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College.

Ayrton saw a lot of firsts as a female innovator in the STEM field. In fact, she saw a lot of firsts for females in any field. Although female power and intellect were generally disregarded at the time of her career, Ayrton went above and beyond and managed to grasp the attentions of many. Her discoveries in science and mathematics were undeniably valid, applicable, and even revolutionary. It's strange that the name "Hertha Marks Ayrton" doesn't ring an immediate bell for most. Although her legacy is not widely connected to her name, science and technology would not be what they are today without her contributions.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

Become a WITI Member!

Are you interested in boosting your career, personal development, networking, and giving back? If so, WITI is the place for you! Become a WITI Member and receive exclusive access to attend our WITI members-only events, webinars, online coaching circles, find mentorship opportunities (become a mentor; find a mentor), and more!

Become a Member

Member Coaching Circles

There are no WITI online coaching circles scheduled at this time. Please check back soon for updates.

More Coaching Circles

Our Story

Founded in 1989, WITI (Women in Technology International) is committed to empowering innovators, inspiring future generations and building inclusive cultures, worldwide. WITI is redefining the way women and men collaborate to drive innovation and business growth and is helping corporate partners create and foster gender inclusive cultures. A leading authority of women in technology and business, WITI has been advocating and recognizing women's contributions in the industry for more than 30 years.

Read More

The organization delivers leading edge programs and platforms for individuals and companies -- designed to empower professionals, boost competitiveness and cultivate partnerships, globally. WITI’s ecosystem includes more than a million professionals, 60 networks and 300 partners, worldwide.

WITI's Mission

Empower Innovators.
Inspire Future Generations.
Build Inclusive Cultures.

As Part of That Mission WITI Is Committed to

Building Your Network.
Building Your Brand.
Advancing Your Career.