Breaking the Sound Barrier

What was the first invention to break the sound barrier?

And the answer: bullwhip.

Made of braided leather, the bullwhip was invented about 2,000 years ago. The tip of a bullwhip is thought to be the first human-made object to break the sound barrier, resulting in the telltale "crack" of the whip. This "crack" sound is actually a small sonic boom.

To break the sound barrier, you (or your bullwhip) must exceed about 770 mph at sea level. Environmental factors such as weather and altitude can affect these chances, but generally any speed higher than the given amount will amount in a sonic boom of some degree. During World War II, a common misconception for the sound barrier was quite literal, as fighter pilots spoke of striking an "invisible wall" powerful enough to tear apart entire aircraft. Though future studies revealed that the "barrier" pilots spoke of was no more than intense drag created by shockwaves, the aerodynamic design necessary for a plane to successfully break the sound barrier was not created until the following decade.

How does it work?

Pressure waves, or better known sound waves, propagate at the speed of sound. When an aircraft is moving faster than the speed of sound (breaking the sound barrier), the pressure waves do not propagate in front of the aircraft, but rather create a wave, similar to the wake of a boat, that follows along. A sonic boom is that sound wave passing by the observer.

However, bullwhips and aircraft aren't the only things powerful enough to break through the sound barrier. A particular species of shrimp known as pistol shrimp have the unique ability to stun their prey with an extremely sharp snap of their claws. Despite being less than an inch long, pistol shrimp can emit a sound reaching as loud as 218 decibels – equivalent to the sound of a gunshot. Check out these powerful shrimp in action below:


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