William Edward Ayrton

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William Edward Ayrton
William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908).jpg
William Edward Ayrton
Born 14 September 1847
London, England
Died 8 November 1908(1908-11-08) (aged 61)
Citizenship British
Awards Fellow of the Royal Society
Royal Medal (1901)
Scientific career
Fields physics, electrical engineering
Academic advisors The Lord Kelvin

William Edward Ayrton, FRS (14 September 1847 – 8 November 1908) was an English physicist and electrical engineer.


Ayrton was born in London, the son of Edward Nugent Ayrton, a barrister, and educated at University College School and University College, London. He later studied under Lord Kelvin at Glasgow.

Ayrton’s second wife, Hertha Marks Ayrton, whom he married in 1885, assisted him in his research, and became known for her own scientific work on the electric arc and other subjects. In 1899, Ayrton supported Hertha on her way to being elected the first woman member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Royal Society awarded her a Hughes Medal in 1906. Their daughter Barbara later became a Labour MP, and grandson Michael Ayrton, was an artist and sculptor.

Previously, Ayrton had been married to a cousin, Matilda Chaplin (1846–1883); their marriage had taken place while Ayrton was on home leave from India and Matilda was involved in the Edinburgh Seven campaign to open medical education to women.

Chaplin and Ayrton's daughter was the feminist and author Edith Ayrton, wife of Israel Zangwill and mother of Oliver Zangwill.[1]



In 1868, Ayrton went to Bengal in the service of the Indian Government Telegraph department, where he invented a method of detecting faults in lines, which was of great benefit in the maintenance of the overland communications network.


In 1873, Ayrton accepted an invitation from the Japanese government as Chair of Natural Philosophy and Telegraphy at the new Imperial College of Engineering, Tokyo. He is credited with introducing the electric arc light to Japan in 1878.[2]


On his return to London six years later, Ayrton became professor of applied physics at the Finsbury College of the City and Guilds of London Technical Institute, and, in 1884, he was chosen professor of electrical engineering,[3] or of applied physics,[1] at the Central Technical College, South Kensington. He published, both alone and jointly with others, a large number of papers on physical, and in particular electrical, subjects, and his name was especially associated, together with that of Professor John Perry, with the invention of a long series of electrical measuring instruments, including the spiral-spring ammeter, and the wattmeter. They also worked on railway electrification, produced a dynamometer and the first electric tricycle. Ayrton is also known for his work on the electric searchlight.

Ayrton died in London in 1908 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery.

Honours and awards[edit]

He was elected president in 1892 of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1881 and awarded their Royal Medal in 1901.

Funerary monument, Brompton Cemetery, London

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Nyenhuis, Jacob E. (2003). "notes". Myth and the creative process: Michael Ayrton and the myth of Daedalus, the maze maker. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 207. ISBN 0-8143-3002-9. 
  2. ^ Campbell, Allen; Nobel, David S (1993). Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Kodansha. p. 88. ISBN 406205938X. 
  3. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ayrton, William Edward". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 76. 


  • Graham Gooday's entry in the New Dictionary of National Biography published in September 2004.
  • Cortazzi, Hugh (2002). Britain and Japan, Biographical Portraits, Volume IV. Japan Library. ISBN 1-903350-14-X. 
  • Morris-Suzuki, Tessa (1994). The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42492-5.