Celebrating International Women’s Day with a local heroine

(c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Today is International Women’s Day. There’s a display of books in the cafe, so head on by and pick up something to read.

Those of you studying engineering, science, maths, politics or history might be interested to find out about one of Portsmouth’s often-overlooked daughters, Hertha Ayrton (28 April 1854 – 23 August 1923), who was born here.

She went on to study at Girton College, Cambridge, but they did not grant her an academic degree because, at the time, they gave only certificates and not full degrees to women. Ayrton later passed an external examination at the University of London, which awarded her a Bachelor of Science degree in 1881.

In 1899, she was the first woman ever to read her own paper (“The Hissing of the Electric Arc”) before the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). Shortly after, she was elected the first female member of the IEE (the next woman would not be admitted until 1958. She petitioned to present a paper before the Royal Society but was not allowed because of her sex and “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc” was read by John Perry in her stead in 1901. Ayrton was also the first woman to win a prize from the Society, the Hughes Medal, awarded to her in 1906 in honour of her research on the motion of ripples in sand and water and her work on the electric arc.

She delivered papers on the same subject again before the Royal Society,at the British Association, and the before the Physical Society. Her interest in vortices in water and air inspired the Ayrton fan, used in the trenches in the First World War to dispel poison gas. She organised its production, and over 100,000 were used on the Western Front during World War 1.

After the war, Ayrton helped found the International Federation of University Women in 1919 and the National Union of Scientific Workers in 1920. She died of blood poisoning (the result of an insect bite) on 26 August 1923 at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex.

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