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Hertha Ayrton

The first woman proposed for membership in the Royal Society, Hertha Ayrton created inventions from tools architects used for enlarging and reducing drawings to fans that could clear poison gas from mine shafts. Ayrton began working as a governess at age sixteen, but attended Girton College at Cambridge, where she founded both a mathematics club and a fire brigade. Since Cambridge wouldn’t give women degrees, Ayrton took exams at the University of London in 1881. After graduating, she earned money by embroidering, teaching math, and creating math problems for the Educational Times. In 1884 she applied for the first of her 26 patents, part of a lifelong struggle to ensure she and other female scientists like Marie Curie received credit for their work. In 1885 she published a paper solving the flickering of electric lights, a discovery that led to her becoming the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. She ran the physical sciences section of the 1899 International Congress of Women. In 1906 she won the Hughes medal for her work on sand and water ripples, and later used these discoveries about currents and motion to create fans that could combat mustard gas and other chemical agents in WWI. 


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In this photo from a 1926 biography of Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), captioned "Mrs. Ayrton in her laboratory," the British scientist and inventor stands in the "lab" in her own home where she conducted all her experiments. Ayrton was the first woman to be proposed for fellowship of the British Royal Society, but her candidacy was denied on the grounds that as a married woman she had no legal existence in British law.

Institution: Hertha Ayrton 1854–1923: A Memoir, by Evelyn Sharp (London: 1926)

Date of Birth

United Kingdom

Date of Death

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Hertha Ayrton." (Viewed on December 2, 2020) <https://jwa.org/people/ayrton-hertha>.


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