Today, a very fast car. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
What's the fastest you've
ever moved? You've flown at near sonic speed in
high-altitude jet liners, but that offers no sense
of speed. The ground's too far away to provide a
frame of reference. The highest speed you've been
aware of may well've been landing at the airport.
At that instant you whip past objects on the ground
at around 150 miles an hour. I've gone that fast in
Japan's Shinkansen train, but never any faster on
A Stanley Steamer first reached 150 miles an hour
in 1907. Since then, top ground speeds have doubled
every thirty years, but only a handful of people
have experienced those top speeds.
stuck just below the speed of sound in the early
1990s. The British, who took the record away from
the American Breedlove in 1983, finally went
supersonic in 1997. They did it in their
ThrustSSC, with its driver's pod hunkered
down between two huge turbojet engines. By now it's
reached 763 miles an hour.
The biggest problem the British faced was
determining how shock waves would interact with the
ground. At supersonic speeds, wind forces can blow
a car about like tissue in a hurricane. If the
car's the least bit unstable, the driver is a dead
You can't test such behavior in a wind tunnel,
because you'd need a road moving past the
stationary test vehicle at more than the speed of
sound. Only in the last few years have
supercomputers reached the capacity for making such
complex airflow calculations. Only recently has it
become possible to design such a car.
And there lies a great irony. The nuclear test ban
treaty has given Los Alamos Laboratory a major
impetus for developing such complex computations.
They hope to reach the point where they can model
nuclear blasts. By banning live tests, the treaty
might well be contributing to the design of nuclear
weapons, at the same time it's stimulating the
development of new tools for racecar makers.
In any case, the British car went supersonic just
fifty years and a day after Chuck Jaeger did it in
an airplane. Then, on October 15, 1997, at Black
Rock, Nevada, RAF squadron leader Andy Green pushed
the car to Mach 1.02 (763 miles an hour) with his
wheels turning at 8500 rpm. And he lived tell of
Moving that fast on land is dangerous beyond our
comprehension. Indy 500 racecars go scarcely two
hundred miles an hour. Insofar as speed is
concerned, our automobiles reached their maturity
in the late 1930s. Later, as Sputnik went up in
1957, French philosopher Roland Barthes said,
... cars today are almost the exact equivalent
of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme
creation of an era, conceived with passion by
unknown artists, and consumed in image ... by a
While ThrustSSC outruns our jet planes, our
motorcars really have become aging icons. We have
consumed their image, but we've also frozen their
speed ever since my childhood.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds