Ayrton Fan : Lieutenant Colonel J B St Vincent-Welch, 13 Field Ambulance, AIF

Place Europe: Western Front
Accession Number RELAWM06267
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Heraldry
Physical description Cane, Cotton, Cotton webbing, Wood
Location Main Bld: First World War Gallery: Western Front 1916: Weaponry
Place made United Kingdom
Date made c 1915-1917
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Khaki cotton hinged fan, reinforced with cane rods threaded through sewn-in pockets. The fan is collapsible, the sides folding inwards and then in three for compact storage. When folded, the canvas section is secured by a sliding peg held in a cotton webbing loop. The wooden handle is restrained by a larger cotton webbing loop on the back of the fan, which prevents it from beating in two directions (the intent being to push toxic gases away from the user only.) The rear canvas is stamped in black with a Broad Arrow marking, while the Australian War Records Section number 'A2658' is written in black ink on the side of the handle.

History / Summary

The 'Ayrton Fan', devised in 1915 by Mrs Hertha Ayrton, a distinguished British physicist and mathematician, was one of the more controversial defences offered to British soldiers during the First World War. Intended to combat the use of poison gas by the Germans, the fan was designed to beat back clouds of approaching gas, or to clear trenches or dugouts of chemicals which, being heavier than air, tended to sit in depressions. Mrs Ayrton had a number of powerful friends in the UK, and it is believed that more than 100,000 of the fans were produced and issued to troops on the Western Front. Unfortunately, they were not popular in service, having little apparent effect upon gas clouds, and requiring considerable exertion on the part of the user. Any physical activity while wearing protective gas equipment was difficult, and tended to more quickly exhaust the resistance of a respirator. Major General CH Foulkes, commander of the 'Special Brigade' responsible for British gas operations, commented that the fan was 'actually worse than useless', and noted that: 'Late in the war I inquired of more than sixty Divisional Gas officers whether there was any advantage in retaining the fans, and they were unanimous in stating that they served no useful purpose whatever for protection against gas - though it was suggested that the handle, being made of wood, provided at times a valuable emergency fuel.' These comments, while perhaps harsh, probably accurately reflected the views of most soldiers, although the Ayrton Fan remained in service in ever decreasing numbers until 1918.