As a child, Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling played with building sets and spent her spare change on tools for tinkering with projects; at 16, she bought herself a motorcycle and started modifying it. She was a trailblazer practically from the day of her birth on March 8, 1909, so it’s not surprising that this British aircraft engineer would go on to solve a dangerous flaw in the Supermarine Spitfire, an iconic World War II aircraft. She was a pioneer in military aviation technology and an early advocate for women in engineering. It is quite fitting that we now celebrate International Women’s Day on her birthday.
Book Smart and Street Smart
Though she was clearly skilled from an early age, Shilling hadn’t considered pursuing a career as an engineer until her mother discovered The Women’s Engineering Society. After high school, she secured an apprenticeship at an electrical firm owned by Margaret Partridge, who mentored Shilling and urged her to study electrical engineering formally. Shilling became one of the first two women to study engineering at the University of Manchester, where her student record card defaulted to “Mr.” since all students were presumed to be male, says the BBC.
Despite the challenges, Shilling graduated in 1932 with an honors degree in electrical engineering. Work was scarce during the Great Depression, so she continued school. She earned a master’s degree by researching combustion engines, which had fascinated her ever since she started motorcycling. “I got a lot of pleasure from dismantling and rebuilding this motorcycle,” Shilling wrote of her teenage project in a 1969 letter in The Woman Engineer: The Journal of the Women’s Engineering Society of the UK. (Skip to page 326 to read it in full).
As soon as women were allowed to race motorcycles at Brooklands, the world’s first motor racing circuit, Shilling bought herself a Norton M30 and modified the engine to make it even faster. In 1934, she hit speeds of 106 mph (171 kph) to win a Brooklands gold star, according to Engineering and Technology.
Savior of the Royal Air Force
Following her success in both racing and academia, Shilling started working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, which supplied the Royal Air Force with military aviation technology. During this time, it was uncommon to hire women, notes the BBC.
Shilling explains in her 1969 letter, “The Air Ministry, having had some experience of women’s work in the First World War, were not entirely unsympathetic and I was offered a job as an assistant in the Technical Publications Department at the Establishment.” After spending eight months writing aero-engine handbooks, she was transferred to the engine department, where she specialized in research and development on carburetors, a much better match for her skills and interest.
When World War II broke out, the Royal Air Force had an urgent problem: The engines of its warplanes were prone to cutting out mid-flight. There was a glitch in the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that powered the iconic Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane and the Hurricane fighter-bomber. When planes performed g-maneuvers, such as dives and other aerobatics, fuel could flood the engine and cause stalling, Real Engineering explains.
Tilly Shilling fixed the defective engine problem in 1940 by adding a small disk to the carburetor that stopped the fuel surge and prevented stalling. She spent the next year touring air force bases to show them how to make the repair. Her device was a relatively easy and temporary fix so that they didn’t have to refit planes, and it enabled pilots to win the war.
In 1938, Shilling married George Naylor, who also raced motorcycles and worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. Although her work was crucial to the RAE, Shilling spent a decade as a temporary worker because jobs were only open to single women, who, as a rule, were paid less than men. In 1948, the marriage rule was removed and she became an official RAE employee. That same year, she received the Order of the British Empire and was recognized as a crucial contributor to the eventual Allied victory, according to Motherboard.
She continued aeronautical work for the RAE on projects such as solid-fuel rockets, aircraft brakes and more until she retired in 1969. Shilling stayed active in the aerospace engineering and racing communities for the rest of her life, but much like NASA’s “Hidden Figures,” she remains an underappreciated hero of 20th century innovation.