Creative Genius on International Women's Day


“An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.” Hertha Ayrton

Thursday 8 March marks International Women’s Day 2018, an annual event celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. With Creative Genius taking place this year, we’ve been looking into the stories of women who made their mark in the fields of science, engineering and technology in Hampshire. Today, we’d like to share with you three great female innovators from the county; Hertha Ayrton, Blanche Coules Thornycroft and Tilly Shilling.

Hertha Ayrton

Hertha Ayrton

Hertha Ayrton was an engineer, inventor and physicist. Born in Portsmouth in 1854, she attended Girton College, Cambridge and passed her exams with honours in both English and Maths. However, Cambridge did not give degrees to women at the time, so she received hers through the University of London instead. She was a keen inventor and in 1884 patented a tool for dividing a line into equal parts which could be used by artists and architects. She was also celebrated for her work and research on electric arcs. Arc lamps were widely used for public lighting, but their tendency to flicker and hiss was a problem. Her work led to fixing this issue by binding the arc together to form one constant whole.

Hertha was the first woman to be proposed for the fellowship of the Royal Society, but she was refused because of her married status. However, in 1904 she became the first woman to read her own self-penned paper before the society. The paper questioned the process of ripples appearing on sand when waves washed over it, something that had never been described mathematically before. In 1906 she was awarded the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society, the first woman to receive it for work exclusively her own. In 1915, she invented a fan to clear poisonous gases away from the trenches: over 100,000 ‘Ayrton Fans’ were sent to soldiers on the Western Front.

From 1884 until her death in 1923, Hertha registered 26 different patents, remained strongly committed to campaigns for female suffrage, and became involved with the two newly-founded organisations, the International Federation of University Women and the National Union of Scientific Workers.

Blanche Coules Thornycroft

Blanche Coules Thornycroft

Born in 1873, Blanche was the daughter of John Isaac Thornycroft, the founder of Thornycroft vehicle manufacturers, whose work is featured prominently at Milestones Museum in Basingstoke. Blanche was best known as a marine engineer, mathematician and associate of the Institution of Naval Architects and lived on the Isle of Wight with her family.

Blanche had a reputation as a brilliant mathematician, but since engineering was not available as a subject for women to study at the time, she was largely self-taught. At the family home, Blanche assisted with various tests using the model ship test tank built in the garden. Her skills were put to use during WWI developing a coastal motor boat, moorings for explosive mines and improvements for hull forms. In 1917, Blanche became the first female member to be admitted to The Royal Institute of Naval Architects.

To find out more about Blanche, visit Isle of Wight Hidden Heroes.

Image courtesy of IOW Hidden Heroes and the Classic Boat Museum

Tilly Shilling

Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling

And of course, we can’t talk about great female creative geniuses without mentioning Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling, who features on our Creative Genius page. A great engineer in her own right, Tilly came up with a simple yet effective solution to prevent Spitfires stalling in midair. This fix undoubtedly saved many pilots’ lives.

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