Today in Women’s Transportation History – 1909: An Engineer and Motorbike Racer is Born

Image: Portraits of three women engineers: Margaret Rowbotham, Beatrice Shilling, and Margaret Partridge

Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling, who left her mark as an aeronautical engineer as well as a motorbike and car racer, was born in Waterlooville, England. At age 14, she bought her first motorbike. By that time, she had also developed a strong interest in an engineering career. Shilling earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1932 and a master of science degree in mechanical engineering the following year from the Victoria University of Manchester (now the University of Manchester).

Shilling began working as a scientific officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), the research and development agency of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), in 1932. She remained with RAE until her retirement in 1969, rising to a senior position in the agency’s mechanical engineering department.

One of Shilling’s many key accomplishments during her long career at RAE took place early on during World War II when she sought to address a serious problem impacting numerous British fighter planes. Many RAF pilots flying planes with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines had to deal with those engines stalling when the aircraft went nose-down to begin a dive. This loss of power occurred because the negative g-force resulting from that downward maneuver flooded the engine’s carburetor.

To resolve this potentially lethal threat to RAF pilots, Shilling developed the RAE restrictor. This small metal disc restricted fuel flow to the carburetor and prevented it from flooding, thereby guaranteeing that the engine would not conk out while the plane was airborne. The RAE restrictor, which Shilling helped install in the carburetors of plane engines, proved to be a lifesaving measure for RAF pilots during England’s aerial campaign against the Axis powers.

During the decades in which she worked at RAE, Shilling also continued to focus on her surface transportation pursuits. With great skill and enthusiasm, she raced motorbikes throughout the 1930s and even managed to beat professional riders in several competitions.

After World War II, Shilling – along with her husband George — began racing cars instead. The couple not only raced the vehicles but would spend a lot of time fine-tuning and modifying them in their workshop at home. In addition, Tilly Shilling assumed a consultant role of sorts when it came to car racing. In 1967, for example, she helped American racecar champion Dan Gurney fix the engine overheating problems he was having with his Eagle Mk1.

Shilling, who was once described by one colleague as “a flaming pathfinder of women’s lib,” had no patience with anyone who suggested that her being a woman might make her inferior to males when it came to scientific or technical endeavors. Shilling died in 1990 at the age of 81.

For more information on Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling, please check out

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