Wednesday Geek Woman

Wednesday Geek Woman: Beatrice Shilling, aircraft engineer and motorcycle racer

[This is a guest post. Anonymous, even! I’m reprinting these off the Geek Feminism blog … because I need some role models. Respect!]

Born in 1909 in England, Beatrice Shilling saved up for and bought her first motorcycle at age fourteen, at which age she was already able to take apart and reassemble its engine. A year later, she decided on a career as an engineer, and on completing her schooling she became an apprentice electrical engineer. In 1929 she began a degree in Electrical Engineering at Manchester University, followed by an MSc in Mechanical Engineering.

Soon after graduating, she took up motorcycle racing at Brooklands, on a Norton that she had modified herself. She soon became the second woman to complete a lap at over 100mph, and later became the fastest female racer ever at Brooklands, with a lap speed of 106mph.

Taking up a job at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, at first as a technical writer before moving into an experimental engineering role and then becoming a Senior Technical Officer. She was known not to suffer fools gladly, regardless of their relative position to her in the hierarchy; she did not usually need to offer a spoken reproof, as her penetrating stare was sufficient. She became a leading expert on carburetors, solving a serious problem with the Spitfire fighters’ engine cutting out in downwards maneuvers (and the fix she came up with for the spitfire carbs was colloquially termed “Miss Shilling’s Orifice” 🙂 ); she also worked on other aspects of aircraft engineering.

Of course, she also applied common-sense engineering approaches to her home life: “There are plenty of pockets of resistance in this house occupied by spiders so I decided a flame thrower was the only thing for under the sink.”

After the war, she continued to work in aircraft engineering, including on early ramjets. She was never promoted as far as she would have liked; although she made efforts in such directions, she admitted that she lacked diplomacy and interest in pleasing superiors; and her casual appearance, in old corduroys with a top pocket full of pens, cannot have gone down well in the stuffy, formal structures of the Civil Service. She disregarded unnecessary formalities, and disliked bureaucracy to the extent that she said that Britain won the war because of the shortage of paper! Although her manner could be terse, and some people found her intimidating, she cared about her team, disappearing briefly to fetch fish and chips for them if she kept them working late at night.

In her retirement, her biography “Negative Gravity” records that

Her idea of relaxation was to drive a fast car at full throttle, and if the car was not fast enough, her workbench was there in the back room to machine new parts to make them faster.

As they became too old to be safe in motor racing, Beatrice and her husband George Naylor moved on to rifle shooting, at which they both excelled. She died in 1990, of cancer of the spine.

Wikipedia: Beatrice Shilling