Sonic BOOM – Bullwhips break the Sound Barrier

Was US Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager first to break the sound barrier? The answer may surprise, mesmerize, or antagonize.

Many believe that celebrated test pilot Chuck Yeager was first to punch through the elusive sound barrier. They are correct, at least in part. When Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 rocket plane hit Mach 1 .07, just beyond the speed of sound, on October 14th, 1947, the grinning West Virginian became the first human to conquer the sound barrier in level flight. Although the feat was a crowning achievement for humankind, Yeager’s X-1 was far from the first object to surpass the speed of sound.

That title goes to something far less glamorous than a celebrated aviator — a plain old bullwhip. As far back as 5,000 BC, the Chinese were producing these long, handheld implements to drive cattle. When the whip uncoiled to its fully extended length, a noticeable crack would encourage the animals to fall in line. The question has always been, why does the whip issue such a sound, even when it is striking nothing more than thin air?

In 1927, high speed photography of a whip stroke solved the mystery. The pictures showed that a “sonic boom” was being created as the extreme tip of the whip snapped out to its full length. Because the speed of sound is dependent upon elevation, greater speed is required to break through at sea level than at high altitudes. the whip had to be traveling at an even faster speed than Captain Yeager.

Some studies suggest that dinosaurs had what it took to create a sonic boom more than 150 million years ago. Sauropods, the dinosaur family featuring such beasts as Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, used their long, tapered appendages to defend themselves. With tails that weighed as much as 3500 pounds, these dinosaurs could have done some serious whip cracking!

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