British scientist and inventor Hertha Ayrton (Phoebe Sarah Marks), the first woman to be proposed for the fellowship of the Royal Society (in 1902), was born in Portsea, Hampshire, England, on this date in 1854. Ayrton was refused admission to the Society because, as a married woman, she had no legal status under British law. Four years later, however, she was awarded the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society for her work on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. Ayrton was also denied a degree from Cambridge after studying mathematics and physics there, where she invented a blood pressure meter. In 1899, she was the first woman invited to read a paper by the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and soon became the first woman elected to membership and to be awarded one of their prizes. Ayrton was close to Marie Curie and, writes Pam Hirsch at the Jewish Women’s Archive, “When Marie’s discovery of radium was attributed to her husband, Hertha conducted a vigorous campaign in the press, commenting that ‘errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.’ From 1883 until her death in 1923 Hertha registered 26 patents: five on mathematical dividers, 13 on arc lamps and electrodes, the rest on the propulsion of air. Patents make a clear legal claim to intellectual property, especially important for a woman married to a more famous scientist.” During World War I, Ayrton invented a fan designed to sweep poison gases out of war trenches. “The War Office dismissed her invention,” Hirsch notes, “and acrimonious exchanges followed in the press, until the War Office finally issued 104,000 ‘Ayrton Fans’ to soldiers on the western front.” She died in 1923.
“Hertha Ayrton was an extraordinary woman, not only because she was the first woman to grace this Institution, but because of the impact she appears to have had on anyone who came into contact with her. As her husband, Professor William Ayrton, once said to her cousin, Dr. Philip Hartog, ‘You and I are able people, but Hertha is a genius.'” –Institution of Engineering and Technology Archives