Beatrice Shilling 1909 – 1990: Aeronautical engineer and motorcycle racer
Beatrice Shilling was a celebrated aeronautical engineer and successful motorcycle racer. She made her mark in the male dominated world of engineering by correcting a serious defect in the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine during the Second World War. Once described by one of her colleagues as ‘a flaming pathfinder of women's lib’, Beatrice fought against any suggestion that as a woman she might be inferior to her male colleagues.
Beatrice Shilling was born in Waterlooville in 1909 and moved to Surrey with her family in 1914. After leaving school in 1926 Beatrice became an apprentice electrical engineer in Devon, in itself something of a rarity for a young woman at that time. In 1929 she began a degree in Electrical Engineering at the Victoria University, Manchester, graduating in 1932 and went on to complete a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree by the end of 1933. In the depressed job market of the early 1930s Beatrice initially struggled to find a permanent position but worked for a time as research assistant to Dr Mucklow, who was investigating the behaviour of supercharged single cylinder engines.
Beatrice joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in 1936 and soon became the leading specialist in aircraft carburettors. During the Second World War, she worked on a serious problem affecting the Rolls Royce Merlin engines which were used in the allied Hurricanes and Spitfires. The engines, unlike those of enemy fighters, would misfire or cut out altogether when a pilot was diving steeply. This was costing allied lives and Beatrice and her team worked tirelessly to find a solution. Eventually she came up with the design for a simple but ingenious device, a small brass disc with a hole in the middle, which fixed into the engine's carburettor and was able to reduce fuel deprivation to the engine. It became known as ‘Miss Shilling's orifice’ and after testing demonstrated its effectiveness, was used on all allied aircraft. It drastically reduced engine cut out but Beatrice continued to improve and develop the design in order to eliminate it entirely.
At the same time as advancing her education and career, a love of motorcycles, which began at an early age, led her to race regularly at Brooklands, the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, constructed at Weybridge, Surrey in 1907. Again making an impact in a male dominated field she was awarded the Gold Star for lapping the track at over 106 mph on her Manx Norton 500, faster than any other woman on two wheels.
Beatrice Shilling worked for the Royal Aircraft Establishment until her retirement in 1969 reaching a senior post and receiving an OBE for her efforts during the war. She held a doctorate from the University of Surrey, a CEng and was a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Women's Engineering Society.