She Sang the Arc Electric: Hertha Marks Ayrton (Women in Science 65).

Sometimes, simplicity dooms.  In World War I, chlorine gas rained down upon the British soldiers blearing through their semi-lives in the trenches, killing thousands outright and leaving tens of thousands with permanent neurological damage.  The solution to this tragedy was simplicity itself, an elegant fan designed by a female physicist that, when used properly, could turn back massive gas clouds and empty an infected trench with almost no effort.  That woman’s research into fluid dynamics had given her an appreciation for how small vortices could add up to produce major fluid movement and yet, because her solution was so unostentatious, nobody believed it could work until it was literally too late to matter.

Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854-1923) lived much of her life in the space of Too Late.  The life-saving Ayrton fan was proposed at the beginning of the war and wasn’t seriously considered until 1918.  In spite of having read papers before the Royal Society, she died twenty years before women were allowed to actually be members of it.  She had great dreams of using her insight into fluid properties to improve conditions for sewage workers, enhance coal gas delivery efficiency, and purify the air in the cramped quarters of naval vessels, none of which she lived to see effectively advocated by those with the power to do anything.

All of which seems like a preamble to prepare us for yet another story of tragic youth crashing into undervalued adulthood and finally limping towards bitter death.  But really Ayrton’s life featured as much charm and delight as it did frustration and inertia.  Her father died when she was young and, as both the eldest daughter and one talented at needlework, she could easily have expected to inherit the position of household drudge to her widowed mother, living out her days in the domestic servitude that ate away the first third of Caroline Herschel’s life. Her mother, however, was a progressive thinker who valued women’s education and decided to sacrifice the help and income Ayrton might have brought in to expand her brain.  She was sent away to school where her gifts and stubbornness were both quickly noted.

Ayrton was, her whole life, a jumper and doer.  What she lacked in patience she made up for in inspiration, a trait which allowed her to weather long interruptions in her work more easily than her colleagues who needed the steady pressure of academic expectations to keep them productive.  She was granted financial aid to attend Girton College, her abilities having come to the particular attention of the novelist George Eliot and the educational reformer and patron Barbara Bodichon.  Her education was interrupted not only by her own frail health, but by the need to tend to her chronically ailing younger sister (though she still somehow managed to summon the energy to form her dormitory into a volunteer fire brigade, personally scrambling up and down ladders to convince the local fire chief that women could in fact handle the physical strain).

She worked hard, took in students and sewing work to help pay back her loans, but was so mercurial in her work, so prone to fly off towards the hardest problems before establishing herself solidly in the more mundane foundations, that when she took the infamous Tripos exam, she only managed a third class posting.  She was, however, one of those people who cannot suffer disappointment without simultaneously planning their next triumph.  She went into classroom teaching, realized it didn’t suit her, and instead built a successful livelihood around private tutoring in mathematics that allowed her time to begin her investigations into the various phenomena of electricity and in particular, the carbon arc.


The principle of a carbon arc light is relatively simple: take two carbon rods that are touching, run a current through them, and then slowly separate the rods so that the electricity vaulting over the gap can excite the carbon vapor produced by the decaying rods.  Carbon arc lights produced an incredibly bright beam but, before Ayrton’s time, it was an unreliable source of light, the intensity wavering for reasons unknown and the whole device producing a loud hissing that was likewise unexplained.  However, for pure intensity, there was nothing to match it, so arc lighting was the method of choice for both army searchlights and for movie lighting (you can see the inconsistent flicker of pre-Ayrton arc lights in the first movies) (Neat other parenthetical thing: the original arc lights also produced massive amounts of UV light, so actors had to wear sunglasses in between takes just to avoid massive eye strain headaches) (getting back to our story…)

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Hertha began her studies under Professor Ayrton, a world authority on electrical phenomena, and the student-teacher relationship soon turned into a romantic one.  They were married within a year, and the story is one of the great romances of science.  Professor Ayrton was a staunch believer in women’s intellectual and political rights, and made sure not to contribute to Hertha’s research for fear that people would attribute their joint work to him exclusively, as the press often attributed Marie Curie’s success to her having had Pierre as a partner. As a result of his scrupulous self-absenting from her work, nobody ever could question that Hertha’s research was entirely her own. The professor encouraged her deep involvement in the women’s suffrage movement even when all of her other professional colleagues expressed shock and disappointment that she would sully herself with extreme feminism.

Before she engaged with the radical end of women’s suffrage, however, she had an arc light to perfect, and did so in a series of tightly controlled experiments entirely of her own design and execution in which she discovered that the hissing and variable efficiency were the result of oxygen reactions around the rods and of the entirely backwards design of the rods themselves.  Literally inverting the traditional order of quick versus slow burning carbon in the rods, and evacuating oxygen from the arc area, she produced by the end of her experimentation arc lights of consistent magnitude, no noise, and which took seconds to achieve full power instead of the twenty minutes of traditional models.

Her discoveries were so important, not only as practical improvements but as theoretical leaps in the theory of how arc lighting worked, that the Royal Society requested in 1901 a special reading of her results even if they insisted that, as a woman, she couldn’t read them herself.  I am absolutely serious.  The first time Ayrton’s work was presented to the Royal Society, it was read aloud by a man while Ayrton herself stayed at home.  Eventually, the significance of her work, and the fineness of her experimental apparatuses were so pronounced that the Royal Society couldn’t but let her present the results and demonstrate the experiments herself, but it was never quite moved enough to bother amending its charter to grant her status as a Fellow.  Why marry the cow when you can get the research for free, apparently.


Ayrton was, however, the first female member of the Institution for Electrical Engineers, and the first female to ever address that body officially.  The Royal Society itself awarded her the prestigious Hughes medal in 1906, thereby giving her the dubious honor of being the only British subject awarded the medal who was not also a member of the Society.  Unfortunately, at the height of her arc research work, Professor Ayrton fell seriously ill and required a move to less hectic surroundings, a move which meant leaving the laboratory behind.  Hertha couldn’t continue her electric research but found inspiration for new work in the ripples of sand that collected along the coast of the family’s retreat home.  She wondered about the physical mechanisms that formed the ripples and set about constructing a series of clear tanks and standing wave producers to get to the bottom of the mystery.

There had been bits and slices of research before which suggested that each ripple was produced by waves washing back and forth over small irregularities, slowly building up little mounds of sand.  Ayrton’s research, however, suggested that just a single irregularity produced a series of small vortices which produced in turn a whole range of ripples and vortices, that you could get a whole sand ripple array from just one irregularity.  More, she found that the stationary waves in deep water were able to produce sea-floor sand mounds through similar processes.  Her work, initially greeted with skepticism by the Royal Society, was fully accepted in 1915 when she constructed, by hand, miniature water pressure sensors that definitively showed the operation of her vortices.

Enter the Ayrton fan.  With the onset of World War I in 1914, Ayrton was left wondering how she could contribute to the saving of life.  Her friend Marie Curie had mobilized automobile-bound rolling x-ray units with her daughter Irene along the battle front.  Surely there was something Ayrton could do.   She realized, in a flash of inspiration, that if her water tank results could be extended to the grand fluid that is Earth’s atmosphere, she might be able to use the production of tiny air vortices to drive massive air currents and thus save the lives of soldiers facing enemy gas attacks.  In experimental runs, she found that even a single individual fan, used correctly, could clear towering clouds of oncoming gas, replacing them with clear air from behind the user.


An Ayrton Fan. (Photo from the Australian War Memorial)


The war department refused to believe that the answer was as simple as harnessing mini-vortices for mass effects, and when finally convinced sent over an inadequate number of fans without proper instruction, rendering the potentially life-saving items effectively useless. For the rest of her life, Ayrton applied her insight into fan-driven gas movement to an array of problems, only to run repeatedly into the same result, a lingering disbelief that something so basic could produce such massive improvements.  None of her improvements saw general use in her lifetime.

Throughout and in between all the science, there was her devotion to suffrage.  She was a member of Pankhurst’s radical suffrage movement, and was, at the age of 56, grabbed repeatedly by the throat and beaten when she participated in the Battle of Downing Street during which policemen dressed in plain clothes conspired to physically brutalize any suffragists attempting to present a voting petition to the prime minister.  She lent her home for the purpose of nursing protestors who had wasted away on hunger strikes in England’s jails, and her money, such as it was, to the furthering of the cause.  In a life full of Too Late, she had consolation in witnessing with her own eyes the day in 1918 when six million women were finally given the vote.

An agnostic, a socialist-leaning ally of the workers, a battle-hardened suffragist, Hertha Ayrton was, above all things, an exacting scientist who devoted twelve hours a day to perfecting her experiments and designing the miniscule devices that would put her results beyond all possible question.  She was by her death the world’s leading authority on the phenomenon of electric arcing, and the master manipulator of fluid vortices.  Never in phenomenal health, she nevertheless barreled on through her research, feeling that her time on this Earth was limited, and that each moment not spent in work was a potential discovery unmade.  Even a spirit as indomitable as Ayrton’s has to give way eventually under such self-imposed rigor, and Ayrton died in 1923 from a blood poisoning compounded with exhaustion and long-term exposure to gases of various lethalities during her researches.  The Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship, begun in her honor in 1925, continues today.


FURTHER READING: Hertha Ayrton: A Memoir (1926) by Evelyn Sharp is a great book written by somebody who knew Ayrton during the latter half of her life.  Ayrton’s correspondence with Madame Curie, quoted relatively often throughout the book, is kept in the original French, which I totally dig as another detail that makes you feel really IN Ayrton’s time, but others might understandably not.

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