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Beatrice 'Tilly' Shilling: Pioneering engineer

Published: Oct 23, 2014 3 min read

Gemma Taylor

Technology CPD Lead

National STEM Learning Centre

Beatrice Shilling is my chosen STEM champion. In 1924, Beatrice Shilling in her mid-teens decided she wanted to be an engineer. Seventy-five years later, in my mid-teens, and completely unaware of the great history of my chosen profession or the great women who had entered into it, I made the same decision. The work of Beatrice Shilling was pioneering and is a fantastic tale for upcoming and established engineers alike.

Beatrice became an apprentice in an electrical engineering company run by Margaret Partridge, who was involved with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). It was Margaret who persuaded Beatrice to apply for an engineering degree and with the support of the WES and she was one of just two pioneering female undergraduates on the Manchester University Electrical Engineering course in 1929.

After her degree at Manchester, she completed an MSc in Mechanical Engineering and took up motorcycle racing with the university club, using her engineering skills to keep her bike in racing condition. She carried out research at Birmingham University into supercharged single-cylinder engines until joining the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in 1936, where she became their leading specialist in aircraft carburettors.

Outside of work, she began racing at the Brooklands track with a Norton M30 500 cc motorcycle, adding a supercharger and lapping the Brooklands track at 106 mph in 1934. She was recognised by being awarded the Brooklands Gold Star for outstanding performances in track and road racing.

At the beginning of the Second World War, it became clear that there was a serious problem with the carburettors of Rolls-Royce Merlin-engine fighters, such as the Spitfire and the Hurricane. They would cut out when subjected to negative-g, such as when a fighter nosed over into a dive. German fighters were able to out manoeuvre the Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters and a solution needed to be found.

Beatrice devised the RAE restrictor, a small metal disc with a hole in the middle, fitted into the engine's carburettor. It restricted and regulated the fuel flow, allowing the RAF to match the manoeuvrability of the Luftwaffe fighters. She toured airfields fitting the device and was respected and held in affection by RAF pilots, for whom she worked to improve the device for the next two years.

After the war she continued to work with the RAE until her retirement in the 1960s. She received an OBE for her work and a doctorate from Surrey University. She remained fascinated by racing, both bikes and cars, until she was forced to stop due to old age. She died in 1990.

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As part of the National STEM Centre’s celebration of the two millionth visitor to its website, we are running a poll to find the greatest STEM champion.

Vote for Beatrice Shilling as the greatest STEM champion she deserves to be remembered for not only being a pioneer in female engineering expectations but also for being a superb engineer.

This survey is now closed. Thank you for your contributions and you can view the final results.