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Great Girton Girls No.16 – Sarah Marks / Herta Ayrton

After a recent reunion at Girton I decided to get a proper grasp on the history of the institution and read the standard text on the subject of which I had heard much, ‘That Infidel Place’ by Muriel Bradbrook. It’s particularly interesting because it was written in 1969 while revolution was in the air on campuses across the world. (The other name that used to come up a lot was Rosamond Lehmann, for her memoirs I suppose.) It was in ‘That Infidel Place’ I came across Sarah Marks.

Phoebe Sarah Marks Hertha Ayrton 1854 – 1923 British engineer, mathematician, physicist inventor

On that same visit I noticed a portrait on a wall of a woman named Louisa Goldsmid. The name rang a bell and she turned out to be a forebear of mine, closing the circle. A founder of the college, she will be the subject of No.17. She supported Sarah financially during her career.

Phoebe Sarah Marks was born on 28th April 1854 in Portsea, Hampshire (England) and died on 26th August 1923 (at the age of 69). She was a mathematician, engineer, physicist and inventor. As a teenager she changed her name to Hertha and in due course married physicist and electrical engineer William Ayrton, so she ended up with the name Herta Ayrton and that’s what’s on her two relatively recent blue plaques. She got the name Hertha from the eponymous heroine of Swinburne’s poem.

sarah marks hertha-marks-ayrton scientist

Phoebe Sarah Marks (known as Sarah) was the third child of Levi Marks, a Jewish watchmaker who fled Tsarist Poland, and Alice Theresa Moss, a seamstress. Sarah’s mother was the daughter of Joseph Moss, a glass merchant in Portsea. Levi Marks died in 1861, leaving Sarah’s mother with seven children and an eighth on the way.

Two years later Sarah went to live with her aunts in London and be educated alongside her cousins. The aunts ran a school in NW London. She quickly developed a reputation for having a fiery personality.

By 1870 she was working as a governess, a profession closely connected with Girton and the rise of women’s university education.

Sarah got involved in the women’s suffrage movement while still a teenager. That’s how she met Barbara Bodichon, who went on to become co-founder of Girton. They came into contact while Sarah was a governess and she came to regard Sarah almost as a daughter. Bodichon paid Sarah’s fees and maintenance at Girton and supported her financially throughout her education and career. She ended up bequeathing her considerable estate to Sarah and Sarah marked her gratitude by calling her first child Barbara Bodichon Ayrton. Barbie as she came to be known was born in 1886. She became a Labour MP and died in 1950. Her own son was the artist, Michael Ayrton (1921-1975).

The Captive Seven (1949-50) by Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) Tate Gallery

The Captive Seven (1949-50) by Michael Ayrton – Tate Gallery

Sarah/Herta went up to Girton College, Cambridge, in one of the early cohorts of undergraduates there. She studied Mathematics.

Her application to Cambridge was supported by the novelist George Eliot. Eliot used her as the model for Mirah Lapidoth in ‘Daniel Deronda’.

Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth george eliot daniel deronda tv drama

Jodhi May as the Jewess Mirah Lapidoth in Andrew Davies’ 2002 TV adaptation of ‘Daniel Deronda’

At Girton she set up the Mathematics club, led the choral society, and, ironically for the fiery personality that she was, founded the College Fire Brigade in 1879 (which persisted until the 1930s).

Girton Girls Fire Brigade formed in 1878

The Girton College Fire Brigade formed in 1879 to protect the the isolated buildings which were located 2 miles from the city centre

While still an undergraduate Sarah built a sphygmomanometer (blood pressure meter). She was taught by physicist Richard Glazebrook. In 1880 Sarah passed the Mathematics Tripos but was not granted an academic degree because the University awarded only certificates, not full degrees, to women at that time. Indeed until 1948! [See ‘The Steamboat Ladies’ post]

The following year Sarah/Herta passed an exam at the University of London, which awarded her a Bachelor of Science degree.  This links back to my relative Louisa Goldsmid whose forebears had helped found University College London, a constituent college of the federal University of London. Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778–1859) was a Founder and Benefactor of UCL alongside the likes of Jeremy Bentham and George Birkbeck (my father, a scientist, from the other side of my family than the Goldsmids, in due course went to Birkbeck College to do his PhD in Organic Chemistry).

Back in London Herta made her living by teaching, as well as embroidery. She taught maths at Notting Hill and Ealing High School. She also ran a club for working girls. In addition, she devised mathematical problems for the Educational Times ‘Mathematical Questions and Their Solutions’ page.

In 1884 she patented a line-divider, an instrument for engineering drawing used for dividing a line into any number of equal parts and for enlarging and reducing figures. This was her first major invention and was of use not only to engineers but also to artists and architects. Her patent application was financially supported by that same Louisa Goldsmid and Barbara Bodichon. The line-divider was displayed at the Exhibition of Women’s Industries and received a good deal of press attention. Between 1884 and 1923 Hertha registered 26 patents: 5 for mathematical dividers, 13 for arc lamps and electrodes, 8 for the propulsion of air.

In 1884 Herta began attending evening classes on Electricity at Finsbury Technical College. These were delivered by Professor William Edward Ayrton, a pioneer in electrical engineering and physics education, and a fellow of the Royal Society. They ended up getting married the following year (6th May 1885). After their marriage she assisted him with physics/electricity experiments. She also began her own experimentation into the characteristics of the electric arc.

Electric arc lighting was in wide use in late 19th Century Britain for public lighting. Its tendency to flicker and hiss was a significant problem. In 1895/6 Hertha wrote a series of articles for ‘The Electrician’ linking these defects to oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods used to create the arc. In 1899 she was the first woman to read her own paper (‘The Hissing of the Electric Arc’) to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. (Early in my career at Channel 4 I collaborated with the IEE on a long-running creative industries talent development project called IdeasFactory which I ran from 2003 to 2005.) Herta was elected the first female member of the IEE (alone in that status until long after her death – the second woman to be admitted was in 1958). In 1902 Herta published ‘The Electric Arc’, a summary of her research on the electric arc.


Portrait of Hertha by Helena Arsène Darmesteter who also died in 1923 and whose mother was the editor of the first Jewish women’s periodical, Marion Hartog Moss, presumably related to Alice Moss. She exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

She petitioned to present a paper to the Royal Society but was refused on the grounds of gender – in 1901 her paper ‘The Mechanism of the Electric Arc’ was read on her behalf by renowned electrical engineer John Perry. He proposed her as a Fellow of the Royal Society the following year but this was rejected by the Council of the Royal Society, who decreed that married women were not eligible to be Fellows. Two years on, however, she became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society (1904) when she was permitted to read ‘The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks’ (which was published in due course in the Proceedings of the Royal Society). Herta presented six papers to the Royal Society between 1901 and her death, a final one in 1926 being delivered posthumously.

Herta was the first woman to win a prize from the Royal Society, the prestigious Hughes Medal for original discovery in the Physical Sciences (especially the applications of  electricity/magnetism). It was awarded to her in 1906 for her work on the electric arc, as well as on the motion of ripples in sand and water. She was the fifth recipient of this annual prize. It took until 2008 for the second woman to be awarded the medal.

In 1899 Herta was put in charge of the Physical Science section at the International Congress of Women which took place in London. The following year she delivered an address at the International Electrical Congress in Paris. In the wake of that success the British Association for the Advancement of Science allowed women to serve on general and sectional committees.

Herta’s work on vortices in water and air gave rise to the ‘Ayrton fan’/’Ayrton flapper’ which was used in the trenches of the First World War to dispel poison gas. She fought for its adoption and even organised its production, over 100,000 being used on the Western Front.

Ayrton anti-gas fan [Imperial War Museum]

Ayrton anti-gas fan – waterproof canvas with cane handle. The back has a hinge so it can fit the varying shapes of the backs of parapets, corners of traverses etc. The fan is 89cm long, with a blade 47cm square, and weighs less than 0.5kg.

After the Great War, Herta helped found the International Federation of University Women (in 1919) and the National Union of Scientific Workers (1920).

Her death highlights the wonders of natural science – she died from the bite of an insect (and subsequent blood poisoning) at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex. She has a blue plaque at her London home at 41 Norfolk Square in Paddington, placed there in 2007, 84 years after her fatal sting.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? [1 Corinthians]

In February this year a second blue plaque was unveiled at the site of her birthplace at 6 Queen Street, Portsea.

Phoebe Sarah Marks Hertha Ayrton 1854 – 1923 British engineer, mathematician, physicist inventor

In 2015 the British Society for the History of Science established the Ayrton Prize for web projects and digital engagement in the history of science. Which brings us nicely up to the present.



The Steamboat Ladies

Girton College Cambridge September 2018I am sitting in the middle of Woodland Court at Girton College, Cambridge, my alma mater. From this bench I have a good view of the college chapel in one corner and the library in the other. Due to its Victorian gothic red-brick style (built 1874-87) everything here looks like a chapel – the library, the dining hall – one of the main reasons I came here was that I had been reading ‘Northanger Abbey’ just before choosing a college, was really taken with it, and thought this infidel place looked like it.

Next year Girty celebrates her 150th birthday and through that I came across the ‘Steamboat Ladies’. The Steamboat Ladies were female graduates of Cambridge and Oxford who were not granted degrees by their university but were awarded them instead by Trinity College, Dublin which was more progressive with regard to equality in higher education.

This took place between June 1904 (the year in which ‘Ulysses’ is set) and December 1907. The ladies were forced to board the steamboat for Dublin because their own universities, at which they attended the women-only colleges of Girton, Newnham and Sommerville, refused to confer degrees upon women.

Trinity College, Dublin started admitting female students in 1904. Cambridge and Oxford ghettoised the women in separate female colleges. Girton sits here on the edge of town, a good cycle ride from the centre, because that’s as near as the women were allowed. Before here it was in Hitchen, an even safer distance away, 35 miles away in Hertfordshire. The University of Dublin had a tripartite arrangement with Oxford and Cambridge of ad eundem mutual recognition.

Students at Benslow House, Hitchin, in 1872. In 1873 it reopened just outside Cambridge and became Girton College.

Students at Benslow House, Hitchin, in 1872. In 1873 it reopened just outside Cambridge and became Girton College.

By December 1907 Trinity College had granted degrees to around 720 Steamboat Ladies. They had all passed the exams at Oxbridge that earned male students a degree.

By the time I came here in 1983 this was 50/50 mixed, the only such college in Cambridge.

Girton College Cambridge officials mistress

Girton founders

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