During a lull in our conversation, I smiled at Jorge in a mischievous way and asked, “So, have you read any good books lately?”
“As a matter of fact, I finally got around to reading that biography of Elon Musk that you reviewed several months ago.”
“The book motivated me to investigate more about Mr. Musk and the guy he named his car company after. Musk and Nikola Tesla are two people who really pushed the envelope.”
“What do you mean by saying they really “pushed the envelope’?”
“Well, both men used their extreme intelligence in ways that expanded the horizons of technology. Tesla had countless far-fetched fantasies that he turned into practical concepts and inventions. Musk is also very smart. He has taken some of his fantasies and turned them into reality, too. I am amazed how someone can take the dream of electric cars and turn it into a successful auto manufacturing company.”
I added, “Don’t forget ‘Space X’. Musk’s fantasy of travel into Outer Space has not only become the reality of rocket flight, but a successful aerospace company, to boot.”
“Yeah, Musk is sure pushing a lot of envelopes. How did the English language get such a weird saying as “pushing the envelope”, anyway?”
We decided to look it up on the Web. The first entry on the search brought up the Urban Dictionary. It said, “‘[S]tretch the limits’–to go further (in any field) than anyone or any group has done before, perhaps doing something that wasn’t previously thought possible.”
That confirmed the standard definition of the phrase, but it didn’t say anything about its origin. For that, we decided to check Wikipedia. There was a short, but enlightening article on it.
“In aviation and aeronautics the term ‘flight envelope’ had been in use since WWII, as here from the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, 1944:
‘The best known of the envelope cases is the ‘flight envelope’, which is in general use in this country and in the United States… The ‘flight envelope’ covers all probable conditions of symmetrical manoeuvring flight.’
That envelope is the description of the upper and lower limits of the various factors that it is safe to fly at, that is, speed, engine power, manoeuvrability, wind speed, altitude etc. By ‘pushing the envelope’, that is, testing those limits, test pilots were able to determine just how far it was safe to go.”
We still wondered how such an arcane term became a popular idiomatic phrase, so we searched further. Apparently the public adopted it after 1979, following the release of Tom Wolfe’s popular book about the US space program. In The Right Stuff were dialogues about test flights using the phrase “pushing the outside of the envelope”. The idiom became a bigger part of everyday usage after the 1983 release of the movie based on Wolfe’s book.
“Jorge, you’ve done a lot of envelope pushing. Do you think of yourself as a maverick? Did you relate much to the Elon Musk bio?”
“Well, the most obvious case is my marriage to Jose’. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined such a reality. So, in a way, both Jose’ and I pushed the envelope together. There are other things, too. From my impoverished childhood, I now enjoy a very good income from my job. I share a very comfortable home and have a wonderful family life. It all seems like a miracle.”
I told Jorge that he is an inspiration to me and that he should never forget that fact. We then went on to discuss more instances of people, we know, who are pushing the envelope.
It’s funny how the off-the-cuff question, “Have you read any good books, lately?” pushed the envelope in an unexpected way.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes writer/comedian Louis C.K. “Pushing the envelope sort of implies that you’re inside the envelope with everyone else, and you’re trying to find the edges on the outsides.”