Brilliant minds

With a name as exulting – even pretentious – as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, his parents perhaps thought he was destined for great things.

Which is precisely how he turned out.

His names derive from his French-born father Sir Marc Isambard Brunel – Isambard being a Germanic version of the Norman word for ‘Iron Axe’ – and his English mother Sophia Kingdom.

The street in Portsmouth where Brunel was born. Parts of the town were destroyed by heavy bombing during World War II and totally rebuilt.
Image by: Sam J Basch

The bronze plaque in a small street in Portsmouth, England where he was born in 1806 refers to him as ‘The Great Engineer’. He stood just over 5 feet (1,5 m) in his boots, which explains why he always wore a stovepipe hat, doubtless meant to make him appear taller.

Brunel against the chains of the ‘Great Eastern’ at Millwall, 1857
Image by: Robert Howlett (1831-1858)

And he smoked 30 cigars a day. Then again, this workaholic’s day lasted 20 hours.

In his short life of 53 years, he built iron transatlantic ships, tunnels, railways and bridges. Look for a statue of him on Platform 8 in London’s Paddington station, the terminus he designed for the Great Western Railway for which he was the chief engineer.

The ‘Great Eastern’ apparently beached in Australia to be broken up.
Image by: Wikimedia Commons (Allan C. Green)

The Rotherhithe Tunnel, opened in 1908 and now part of the London Underground, is a project attributed to him. It was the first tunnel in the world built under a navigable waterway, the River Thames. However, his public recognition rests on ground-breaking railways and bridge designs. The Maidenhead railway bridge boasts the widest brick arch in the world that is still in use.

His name ranked second among ‘Great Britons’ in a 2002 BBC survey.

In contrast to ‘The Great Engineer’, I knew nothing of Hertha Ayrton – until I read a poster on the Hard in Portsmouth harbour. (The Hard refers to a firm slope to launch boats).

Painting of Hertha Ayrton, before 1905, by Héléne Arsène Darmesteter. Girton College, University of Cambridge. Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.
Image by: Wikimedia Commons (Héléne Arsène Darmesteter)

Hertha Ayrton was born Phoebe Sarah Marks in 1854 in Portsea, Portsmouth – also Brunel’s birthplace.

She is described as an engineer, mathematician, physicist and inventor.

The daughter of a Polish-born watchmaker, Hertha grew up in a desperately poor household, more so when her father died when she was very young – and her mother pregnant with an eighth child.

Fortunately, an aunt in London took her in as a pupil at the school she was running. It helped that Hertha’s mother believed in education for girls, which was unusual for the time.

Hertha excelled at school and in social justice causes. Later in life, she was prominent in the suffrage movement which aimed at getting the vote for women.

She was also fortunate to be introduced to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, co-founder of Girton College. The novelist George Eliot, a woman who wrote under a man’s name, supported her application.

At Girton College, Hertha – a nickname given by a friend – struggled with mathematics, but worked at practical solutions, even inventing a device for recording human pulse, and creating the college fire brigade.

She worked as a governess at 16 to support the family. Later in her career, she cared for her invalid sister. In London where she studied, Hertha’s activism came to the fore through her work among working-class girls.

Graduating in science in 1881, Hertha went on to teach. At Finsbury Technical College where she attended evening classes on electricity, she met William Ayrton, a professor and pioneer in electrical engineering and physics.

They got married in 1885 after his wife’s death of consumption. Hertha helped with his experiments, but soon embarked on studies of her own into the characteristics of the electric arc.

Bear in mind that electric arc lighting was then widely used, especially for coastal lighthouses and eventually street lighting. A problem was that the carbon rods caused hissing, humming and spluttering.

Hertha found a solution. The paper she presented at the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in 1899 paved the way for her to become a member. But a proposal to become a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902 was refused on the grounds that “married women were not eligible to be Fellows.”

Hertha Ayrton – a glass negative photograph taken around 1900.
Image by: Bain News Service, publisher.

Her husband supported her throughout, studiously avoiding collaborating with her on any project to ensure that she was credited for her own work.

“… 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,” was her wry comment when her friend Marie Curie’s research on radium was attributed to her husband, Pierre Curie.

Hertha went on to register 26 patents during her lifetime. Her practical mind led to her inventing the Ayrton Flapper Fan in World War I, which was used to clear the trenches of poison gas.

She died in 1923 of blood poisoning, the result of an insect bite.

For her work on the electric arc and sand ripples, the Royal Society awarded her the prestigious Hughes Medal in 1906. She was the first woman to receive it. No other woman would receive this medal until 2008, more than 100 years after Hertha Ayrton.

Small wonder Will Ayrton told Hertha’s cousin Dr Philip Hartog on occasion:

“You and I are able people, but Hertha is a genius.”

Author’s note: Thanks to Peter Ucko for helping to edit this article

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