Tag Archives: women in engineering

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

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, at which point she was the leading mechanical engineering expert witness at the time.

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 carburettors, solving a serious problem with the Spitfire fighters’ engine cutting out in downwards manouevres; 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
Matthew Freudenberg (2003). Negative Gravity, the Life of Beatrice Shilling. Charlton Publications

Kids these days spend so much time linkspamming they don’t know what real friendship is (14th January, 2010)

  • tigtog has some tips for bloggers at How I minimise the online abuse I receive: So here is an assortment of technical tips & tricks whereby bloggers can cut down the volume and the repetition coming from this cyberbullying cadre of keyboard jockeys, making the harassment little more than a tiny hiss of background noise instead of an overwhelming flood of spite.
  • “Amazingly, less than 1 per cent of Silicon Valley investment money goes to women-founded technology companies. Less than 3 per cent of the money goes to companies with women as CEO.” From Melissa Clark-Reynolds’ Diary of an Entrepreneur
  • Eleni Stroulia writes about Women, Computing and Other Minorities “It seems to me that the fundamental reason why there are few women in CS is because our society still (and always) has a gender-specific value system”
  • Shameful Gender Discrimination at UC Davis Veterinary School: I thought at first that someone might be messing with me. It was unbelievable to me that someone would treat a pregnant student this way, leaving her [grades] to the [vote] of her classmates.
  • Syne Mitchell’s History in Code: After this initial taste of programming success, I decided I wanted to learn computer programming “for reals.” I knew that computers thought in binary, but I wasn’t able to find a binary programming book. So I settled for something called Assembly language. Unfortunately, I had no 8080-assembly compiler handy, so it quickly became an exercise of writing PEEK and POKE code calls on paper to store and recall variable amounts and then checking my work manually. Even a truly geeky thirteen-year-old girl will find this dull after a while.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.