Close your eyes and imagine you’re riding a motorcycle. The air is pulling at your clothes as you go faster and faster. You round the edge of the track, then speed up to 90 then 95 miles an hour. The people watching flash by. You push harder on the gas. 100 miles an hour! The crowd stands up and cheers! For another lap around the track, you hold that speed and finally cross the finish line. Everyone congratulates you. You beat the record of the highest speed around the track!
This is the story of motorcycle racer and engineer, Beatrice Shilling!
Beatrice Shilling was born on March 8, 1909, in Waterlooville, England. As a child, Beatrice loved mechanical things. This means she loved to understand how devices worked on the inside. Have you ever seen household items like a microwave or refrigerator or your family car and wondered how they do such amazing things? Beatrice wondered, too, so she used her extra money to buy tools to take these devices apart and figure out what made them tick. She was especially interested in engines. In her time, cars and motorcycles with engines were still very new, so these wonderful devices that made vehicles fly down the road made her very curious. Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something.
When Beatrice was 14 she bought her first motorcycle and loved to ride it around. She spent many hours tinkering with the engine and figuring out ways to make it go faster. Early on Beatrice decided she wanted to be an engineer. An engineer is someone who creates devices like engines.
After middle school, Beatrice got a job at an electrical engineering company, where she learned more about how electricity worked and was able to practice her new skills by installing wires and generators. A generator is what creates electricity and wires are what allow it to move around. Beatrice’s boss saw how talented she was and encouraged her to go to school to become an even better engineer.
Beatrice followed her advice and enrolled at the University of Manchester. In her day it was very unusual for a woman to become an engineer, but Beatrice was determined to do it anyway. She worked hard at math and the other subjects until she was able to pass all of her classes and become an even more skilled engineer. She even graduated with honors, which means she did very well in engineering school. Beatrice went on to get a Master’s Degree.
World War II
After university, Beatrice got a job with the Royal Aircraft Establishment. She had many different roles there, but eventually became a Senior Technical Officer and worked on airplane engines. At this time it was very important to be an engineer working on airplanes because England and its Allies were fighting against Germany in World War II. The German Air Force had very powerful fighter planes that were faster and therefore more dangerous than England’s fighter planes. To fight back against these powerful planes, England designed a plane they called the Spitfire, which was also fast and could maneuver quickly through the sky to dodge bullets and get in a position to fight back. But even though the Spitfire was an amazing fighter plane, it had a serious problem. When pilots flew downward too fast the engines stopped working. This was a serious problem during a dogfight. A dogfight is when planes are fighting each other in the sky. Many Spitfires crashed as a result of this problem with their engines.
As an engineer, Beatrice was determined to solve this problem. She thought long and hard about this and finally came up with an idea to add a diaphragm and hole inside the engine that only allowed some fuel to move across it when the plane was diving. This solved the problem! Once Beatrice’s new device was added to all of the Spitfire fighter planes they were able to dive and outmaneuver the enemy planes and win more battles! Her device saved many pilots and helped win the air war against Germany.
Beatrice loved to work on hard problems, but she also loved to have fun. Over the years she kept tinkering with her motorcycle and riding it fast. Her knowledge of engineering helped her have one of the fastest motorcycles around. She even started racing! She often rode her motorcycle faster than 100 miles an hour. During one race she rode around the entire track at over 100 miles an hour and earned Brookland’s Gold Star for her achievement. She broke a record and became the fastest woman racer at this track reaching 106 miles an hour.
Beatrice married a man George Naylor, who she met while working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and continued to work there until she retired in 1969. Her biographer said about her: “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.”
Spend some time thinking about what drove Beatrice to accomplish what she did. First, she was curious. Everyone is born curious, we all have the desire to learn more about the world around us. But we may all be curious in different ways. What are you curious about? What do you like to ask questions about? Next time you have a question, instead of just being curious and wondering, take it a step further and try and figure out the answer. This might mean looking up a video or searching for the answer in a book or online. The more you learn, the more you’ll understand the world around you. And when you figure out one thing, you can figure out the next and you’ll continue to build your knowledge and grow and the world will become more exciting and interesting.
And even though most girls weren’t engineers, it didn’t stop Beatrice from doing it anyway. Jobs like engineering and coding are becoming very important in our day as more and more jobs are becoming automated. Automated means being done automatically by devices like robots. This means the future will need more engineers and coders. Take the time to figure out if this is the kind of job that interests you!