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Spotlight on Women in Engineering – Hertha Aryton

As you may well know, we here at Dyne Technology have started a regular feature shining our spotlight onto notable and very inspirational women in engineering! Why? Only 9% of engineers are women and we believe bringing the incredible work done by women to the forefront may help to inspire the next generation.

We hope you find Herthas incredible story as inspirational as we do and remember to keep an eye out for our next “Spotlight on…” feature to discover more about female engineers who you may not of heard of.

Hertha Aryton: 1854 – 1924

Hertha Aryton
Hertha Ayrton by Mme. Darmesteter

Hertha was born in Portsmouth on April 28th, 1854 but later moved to London at the age of nine and was taught at a school owned by her aunt Marion Hartog. At the Hartogs’ school, Sarah developed a reputation as a scholar and justice fighter, for example, she once went on hunger strike for two days when wrongly accused of a misdemeanour. It was both her principles and “fiery” personality that later led to her commitment to the suffrage movement, never being shy of making herself a prominent figure in the political arena. Hertha was actively involved in marches, demonstrations and she opened her home to women after being released from jail who had recently taken part in hunger strikes, these women included Mrs Pankhurst.

Not only was Hertha an inspirational woman because of her contributions to the suffrage movement, but she also gained notoriety (so much so that we’re still writing about Hertha to this day!) for being an incredible engineer, scientist and inventor – careers in areas which were heavily male-dominated.

The pioneering young scientist attended Girton College in 1876, which was a part of the University of Cambridge and had become renowned for pioneering women’s education and establishing the first residential college for women in England.

After leaving Girton College, Hertha returned to teaching to support herself while herself attended college at the Finsbury Technical College; Hertha and her lecturer, Professor William Aryton married in 1885. For some time, Hertha suffered from poor health however it never stopped Hertha from working on her passions and in 1888 she gave a series of lectures for women on electricity.

The first woman member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers

Electric Arc Example
Example of an Electric Arc

In 1891, Hertha’s husband, Professor Aryton, was engaged in research into the electric arc but the paper he was due to present was destroyed. Hertha took over the project while her husband turned his attention to other things. Aryton always refused to collaborate with Hertha as he knew any joint work would be credited only to him by the outside world, so Hertha turned her attention to the sometimes-eccentric behaviour of the electrical arc.

In 1895, Hertha Aryton published a series of articles on the subject in The Electrician and in March 1899, was the first woman to ever present a paper to the Institute of Electrical Engineering, now the Institute of Engineering and Technology. She was elected to full membership of the IEE two days later.
In 1902, Hertha was proposed as a Fellow of the Royal Society, her candidature was supported by some notable men of science, but the council decreed that the inclusion of women would not go ahead, citing “We are of the opinion that married women are not eligible as Fellows of the Royal Society. Whether the Charters admit of the election of unmarried women appears to us to be very doubtful.”

Hertha Aryton
Ayrton’s house in Paddington received an English Heritage blue plaque in 2007

Despite this, Hertha wasn’t deterred and read her paper describing her new work on ripple movements in sand and water at the Royal Society in 1904. Hertha’s ground-breaking research on the electrical arc and sand ripples lead to her being awarded a Hughes Medal in 1906, to this day she remains the only woman to have been awarded the Hughes medal.

At the outbreak of WW1, Hertha applied the theories she had developed about oscillations in water to the movement of air and quickly followed the invention of the Aryton Flapper Fan. Hertha encountered difficult in getting the military to consider her idea, but her tenacity ensures her invention was eventually adopted and used to clear the trenches of poisonous gas. After the war, Hertha continued to work in this field until her death in 1923.