Today we celebrate Engineer of the Week No.21, Beatrice Shilling, on her 110th birthday.
Beatrice Shilling BEng, Msc, PhD, CEng, HonMWES(Mrs Naylor) (8th March 1909-18th November 1990)
She is principally celebrated today for her WW2 role in solving the carburettor problems of the Rolls Royce Merlin engines used in the Spitfires and Hurricanes, leading to her invention of the “RAE Restrictor” or, less officially, “Miss Shilling’s Orifice”.
However that was just one of many engineering jobs she was given at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. With the post-WW2 advent of the jet engine, her previous specialism in piston engines was less useful and she was asked to design, specify and commission a new High Altitude Test Plant to enable the testing of the ancilliary equipment for the new jet planes, including their hydraulics, fuel systems and cabin pressurisation equipment. These were all critical now that all planes, both civil and military, were flying faster and much higher. She also worked on the early rocket engines, in particular the fuel delivery systems which had to provide two fuels in very precise quantities at precise timings such as to control the explosive forces involved. Next she joined the many teams working on Cold War era guided weapons, including the ramjet engines for missiles, such as her work on the Blue Streak’s ‘boil-off’ of fuel during launch.
More high-profile than this top secret work was the investigation she led into the Munich air crash which killed the Manchester United footballers. Her expertise on cold weather problems meant she was able to exonerate the pilot who had been blamed for the crash, as it was actually due to runway slush dragging the plane’s speed down below that safe for take off. This work in the 1960s led her to become an expert in the interactions between tyres and runways at higher speeds and NASA consulted her before her compulsory retirement in 1969.
In her own words, addressing the Women’s Engineering Society, on retiring from the RAE at the end of her long career in engineering, Beatrice Shilling told members about how she got started “… when she left school the Society helped her to get an apprenticeship with Miss Partridge in her firm which was carrying out rural electrical installations connecting up homes to a supply of electricity for the first time (there was no grid in those days, of course). Miss Partridge, a long-standing member of the Society and her partner Miss Rowbotham, one of the Society's founders in 1919, encouraged her to try for a degree in engineering at the Victoria University of Manchester. There were no grants in those days but with the Society' s help she got an interest-free loan from the London and National Society for Women's Service to supplement the allowance from her parents. She became a first-year student of electrical engineering but she attended many of the mechanical engineering lectures as well and took thermodynamics in her finals. Coincidentally , there were two women engineering students in the Engineering Department that year ! After finals in the early '30s jobs were scarce and it was clear that women were regarded with suspicion if they applied for practical engineering work. So Beatrice stayed on at university and did some research on internal combustion engines, gaining her MSc. Armed with this she joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough as a technical author. In this capacity she made the most of her opportunities to see first-hand the work being carried out on aircraft engines, etc. She also took time off to go racing on her motorbike , a Standard Norton motorcycle which she tuned herself, and received considerable publicity from her success in lapping at over 100 mph at Brooklands Motor Track Gold Star and winning the race!
Eventually her request for a transfer to the Engineering Department was accepted and during World War II she dealt with such problems as the effect of negative 'g' on aircraft fuel flow and intake problems arising from the debris thrown up on landing and take-off entering the engine air intakes ! She took the opportunity offered to senior staff at RAE to learn to fly. In the reorganisation, after the war, she recalls many women left RAE and preference tended to be given to men in filling posts. Single women were employed in preference to married women. Nevertheless, Beatrice concluded that, with the removal of the marriage bar and the introduction of equal pay, establishments such as the RAE offer interesting employment in many fields of engineering.”
After her own marriage in 1938, Shilling remained on the staff of the RAE, which had to quietly adjust their system by labelling her ‘temporary’ for the next 10 years until the official marriage bar was abolished.