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Shaw and the Sound Barrier

ISSUE:  Winter 1960

There seem very few subjects in which Shaw was not interested, and fewer still on which he was not prepared to express his opinion. Nevertheless, it may surprise most people to learn that towards the end of his life the ubiquitous playwright concerned himself with such advanced ideas as space-travel and supersonic flight. It happened in this manner.

During the summer of 1946 I wrote a paper entitled “The Challenge of the Spaceship”—yes, I had heen reading Toynbee—which was an attempt to evaluate the effects of interplanetary travel upon human thought and society. After I had presented it as a lecture to the British Interplanetary Society in London, it was published in that organisation’s Journal, and later in a number of books and periodicals all over the world (such as, for example, the UNESCO magazine Impact). Most of the basic ideas in this paper have now reached a considerably larger audience by being incorporated in the closing chapters of “The Exploration of Space” and I shall not attempt to repeat them here. My main thesis was that the crossing of space would not merely be an exciting scientific stunt, but would have profound cultural repercussions affecting philosophy, art, religion, and indeed every aspect of our society. I drew a parallel‚—which has now become something of a cliché—between the Renaissance and the coming age of space exploration, suggesting that the moon and planets might play a role during the next century not unlike that of the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the paper I made a passing reference to Shaw, and soon afterwards I came across the magnificent speech with which Lilith closes the play “Back to Methuselah”: “Of life only there is no end; and though of its million starry mansions many are empty and many still unbuilt, and though its vast domain is as yet unbearably desert, my seed shall one day fill it and master its matter to its uttermost confines . . . . ” This, I thought, showed a considerable sympathy with the ideals of astronautics, so I sent Shaw a copy of the British Interplanetary Society’s Journal containing my lecture—not in the least expecting a reply.

Much was my surprise when one of the famous pink postcards arrived, completely covered with shaky but perfectly legible handwriting:

Ayot Saint Lawrence, Welwyn, Herts,
25 Jun 1947


Many thanks for the very interesting lecture to the BIS. How does one become a member, or at least subscribe to the Journal?

When de Haviland [sic] perished here the other day it seemed clear to me that he must have reached the speed at which the air resistance balanced the engine power and brought him to a standstill.

Then he accelerated, and found out what happens when an irresistible force encounters an immovable obstacle.

Nobody has as yet dealt with this obvious limit to aeronautic speed as far as I have read.


The reference is to a tragic event of a few months earlier. On 27 September 1946, Geoffrey de Havilland had been testing the experimental DH 108 jet plane over the Thames, making the last run before a forthcoming attack on the world speed record. He put the plane into a dive, reached the highest speed then attained by man—and was killed instantly when the tremendous forces encountered in going through the sonic barrier tore the aircraft to pieces.

What I did not realise at the time—and indeed have discovered only recently—was that Shaw was a close neighbour of de Havilland’s and knew the young test pilot quite well. This helps to explain one of the points in his second letter.

The receipt of this card filled me with mixed feelings. I was naturally flattered by the response, and was also surprised to discover that at the age of 91 Shaw was willing to join an organisation with aims as advanced as ours. (Back in 1947, anyone who talked about such things as artificial satellites and long-range rockets was still regarded as a little touched. Vanguard, Atlas and Titan were still hidden in the mists of the future.) At the same time, I did not know exactly how to reply—for the main point of his letter was complete nonsense. It did not require any knowledge of aeronautics to appreciate this; it was a matter of common sense. If de Havilland’s plane had reached the speed at which the engine power balanced the air resistance, it would continue at that speed like a motor car that is flat out. It would certainly not be “brought to a standstill,” and the last thing the pilot could do would be to accelerate, since by definition he had no excess power with which to increase his speed any further.

After some thought, I sent Shaw the following tactful reply, hoping to put him right without hurting his feelings:

King’s College,
27 Jan 1947

Dear Mr Shaw,

I am very gratified by your interest in my article and in this Society, and have great pleasure in enclosing further details, as well as our latest publication. I hope that “Astronautics and Poetry” amuses you.

Although the precise cause of de Havilland’s death is still unknown, it seems likely that the accident was due to some structural failure. As you say, the limit of speed is set when air resistance equals engine thrust. But the latter can always be increased with more powerf’ul motors, so there is no absolute limit—only a limit for any particular type of machine. V.2, for example, had more than a dozen times the thust of de Havilland’s machine, and a nnmlier of rocket-propelled aircraft are nearing completion which will have speeds in the 1,000 m.p.h. range.

In the vacuum of space, of course, where the rocket works at maximum efficiency, there is no resistance and no speed limit at all. A motor of any power could build up any speed as long as its fuel supply could he maintained.

Purists may object to my oversimplification; there is, in fact, a natural limit of speed—that of the velocity of light. However, as light travels almost a million times as fast as sound, I felt justified in ignoring this complication in the (vain) hope that Shaw would do likewise.

We know now that it was supersonic flutter, produced when the DH 108 traveled too fast at too low an altitude, which broke up the plane. And there is a sinister little story about the aircraft’s wreckage which, as far as I am aware, has never heen told elsewhere. After the crash, all the pieces that rould he found were dredged out of the Thames and brought back to the factory for examination, It was here, late one night, that the engineers working on the cause of the accident were startled—to say the least—by the sound of something moving inside the mass of twisted metal. It was a loud scratching noise, travelling with sonic determination from place to place. The engineers were perhaps more relieved than they would care to admit when, a few minutes later, one of the broken combustion chambers disgorged a small crab.

Shaw wasted no time in answering my letter. Back by return of post came his cheque, application for membership to the B.I.S.—and this time not a card but a two-page letter. I have since read it a good many times, and it remains one of the most baffling communications I have ever received:

31 Jan 1947

I am not convinced about de Havilland. It is necessary mathematically to have a zero to count from to infinity, positive or negative, Fahrenheit or Centigrade; but the zero is not a physical fact: it is only a convention: and infinity means only the limit to human counting. I approach the subject, being a dramatist, first from my knowledge of the man, and my conviction that he would accelerate to the utmost of his machine if air resistance stopped him. And this would smash his machine as it actually did smash, in spite of all assumptions that speed cannot exceed the velocity of light and that above the stratosphere is sheer vacuum, both of them mathematical conventions and not scientific facts.

Besides, what proof is there that he was above the stratosphere when his machine broke up?

However, this may be only my ignorant crudity; so do not bother to reply.


Despite the polite brush-off in the last paragraph, I felt that it was impossible to let such hopeless confusion go quite unchallenged, so after some thought I replied as follows:

8 Feb 1947

Dear Mr Shaw,

Thank you for your letter. I am so glad that you have decided to join our Society.

I am afraid that my comments on de Havilland may not have been quite clear. He was actually at a relatively low altitude when the accident occurred, and my point is that whatever limit may exist to speeds in the atmosphere there can be none to speeds outside it. This has been proved experimentally by V.2 which traveled six times as fast as de Havilland’s plane (reaching England from Germany [sic] in five minutes and attaining a maximum speed of 3,000 m.p.h.) At heights of more than thirty miles the German scientists were unable to detect any appreciable air resistance, even at this extremely high speed.

This concluded, perhaps none too soon, the Clarke-Shaw correspondence. But Shaw continued to be a member of the British Interplanetary Society until his death three years later; he still holds the record as the oldest member we ever had.

Today, when men have flown at two thousand miles an hour and are preparing to travel twice as fast, this echo from the early days of supersonic flight (all of ten years ago!) seems somewhat quaint and old-fashioned. It may even he a little unkind to preserve what some might consider the words of genius in its dotage. Though it is true that Shaw never hesitated to lay down the law on any subject, even one about which he knew nothing whatsoever, the younger G.B.S. would surely have produced a less eccentric letter than that of 31 Jan 1947.

Yet whatever one may think of the old man’s aeronautical confusion, it is hard not to admire his efforts to keep abreast of the times. How many of us will do as well at the age of 91?


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