Women: Pioneers of Electrical/Electronic Engineering – Hertha Ayrton (1854 –1923)

Hertha Ayrton was a British engineer, mathematician, physicist and inventor, and was awarded the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society for her work on electric arcs and ripple marks in sand and water.


In the late nineteenth century, electric arc lighting was in wide use for public lighting. The tendency of electric arcs to flicker and hiss was a major problem. In 1895, Hertha Ayrton wrote a series of articles for the Electrician which in the periods 1861–1863 and 1878–1952, was the one of the earliest and foremost electrical engineering periodicals and scientific journals. The articles explained that the electrical arc hissing phenomena was the result of oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods used to create the arc.


In 1899, Hertha Ayrton was the first woman ever to present her own paper titled “The Hissing of the Electric Arc” before the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) now the Institute of Engineering Technologies (IET). Shortly thereafter, Ayrton was elected the first female member of the IEE; the next being Dorothy Smith in 1958.


Ayrton, petitioned to present a paper before the Royal Society but was not allowed because of her sex and the paper, “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.


By the late nineteenth century, Ayrton’s work in the field of electrical engineering was recognised more widely, domestically and internationally. At the International Congress of Women held in London in 1899, she presided over the physical science section. Ayrton also spoke at the International Electrical Congress in Paris in 1900. Her success there led the British Association for the Advancement of Science to allow women to serve on general and sectional committees.


Eur Ing Dr Robert Brown (Robert) is a Consultant and Forensic Engineer in the fields Electrical Electronic and Control Engineering.


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