Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, November 27, 2008

1,000 mph. On land.

Today on Radio New Zealand National I celebrated the British attempt to break the land speed record. The British broke it last time it was broken as well, back in 1997 when ThrustSSC took the record to 633mph – a massive 20% increase on the previous record. ThrustSSC was the first car to go supersonic on land, hence the name. And every day, the project posted a huge amount of information on the Internet so armchair record breakers could follow it from around the globe. And its Internet supporters were there for it when it ran out money.

Now, the same team has started a new project – BloodhoundSSC. They want to break their own record and get up to 1,000mph on land. Wow!

Read on for my speaking notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Q: So, what have you for us today?

A: The land speed record, of course! But first, a couple of stories about the world’s favourite Scottish restaurant.

The first one is about a patent that the Golden Arches chain has just received in the US:

The present invention relates to a sandwich assembly tool and methods of making a sandwich, which may be a hot or cold sandwich, quickly by pre-assembly of various sandwich components and simultaneous preparation of different parts of the same sandwich. The sandwich assembly tool is composed of a member preferably having one or two cavities for containing a quantity of garnish. The cavities are used for the assembly of the sandwich. The tool may have a raised ridge adjacent one or both cavities for placement against the hinge of a bread component. Methods of making a sandwich] are disclosed. The methods may include one or more of the use of preassembled sandwich fillings, assembly of garnishes in advance of a customer’s order or while ether portions of the sandwich are being heated using the sandwich assembly tool, the simultaneous heating of a bread component and the sandwich filling, placing the bread component over the tool containing garnish, and inverting the tool and bread combination to deposit the sandwich garnish onto the bread component.

In other words, McDonalds has patented a machine for making a sandwich. Hmm.

Q: Can you do that?

A: Apparently. It even comes with a flowchart. You’d think that someone will take this on, on the grounds that its obvious and that sandwich have been around for years, but that’s an expensive lawsuit to fight.

Q: And the other story?

A: Ah yes. It seems there’s a couple called Philip and Tina Sherman who live, or lived, in Lafayette Arkansas. He left his phone in a McDonalds. He rang the staff there and told them to lock it up until he could come back for it. He was very insistent about that, and – this whole think is the subject of a lawsuit, so I had better start using words like “allege” – and it appears that someone on the restaurant staff’s curiosity got the better of them, and they went through the contents of the telephone.

Q: What was on the phone?

A: Apparently Tina had been sending racy pictures of herself to her husband’s cell phone. There was quite a collection. And, of course, there was her name, address and telephone number. The pictures and the contact details found their way somehow onto the Internet.

Q: What happened next?

A: The Sherman’s claim that this has ruined their lives and that they have had to move to get away from the unwanted attention. They have sued McDonalds for 3 million dollars.

Q: So, tell us about the land speed record

A: I first became seriously aware of the whole thing in about 1997 when some British guys were gearing up to try to run a supersonic car. The leader of the project was the existing record holder, a guy called Richard Noble, who had in 1983 set a record of 633mph – that’s a whisker over 1,000 kph – in 1983 in a car called Thrust2.

Q: was this a jet car?

A: Yes. It had a turbojet, which is what we would today regard as a very primitive form of jet engine. The engine came from an RAF lightning, some people may remember the classic angular Lightning with a pointed nose. It was one of those engines, and they were originally designed in 1945. So, a very old jet engine, but with it he beat everything to date.

Anyway, the Americans had held the land speed record since 1963 with the first record breaking jet car – that was called Spirit of America and was driven by a man called Craig Breedlove, and he’s still around looking at re-breaking the record. Before the first jet car, the record had been held by a succession of Britons driving ordinary piston engined cars, on the Bonneville Salt flats or at Daytona Beach. Those piston engined cars topped out at less than 400 miles an hour – which is still horrendously fast, of course, and it has been jet cars and a rocket car that have held the record since.

Then a series of jet cars driven by Americans held the record through the sixties, and rocket powered car took the record in 1970 and it stayed there until 1983 when Richard Noble took it with Thrust2.

Q: What happened to the first car called Thrust?

A: I think it died under testing on an aircraft runway in the UK.

Q: So, what happened after 1983?

A: Some of the Americans really wanted the record back, but they couldn’t beat Noble’s record. But it was clear that, sooner or later, one of them was going to take the record again, and Noble didn’t want that. So, he did the only sensible thing under the circumstances, and built a new car to break his own record. And in 1997, that was when I became aware of the whole thing.

Q: How did you fid out about it?

A: On the Internet, of course! The Internet was a lot smaller then, and it was unusual for people to use it seriously. And many, or most, of the people on it were geekier than the average Internet user today.

And people like me would check the web site for this project every day. I was fascinated by the whole endeavour and the sheer adventure of it. I followed them as they looked for a desert where they could run this thing, as they proved the technology in the car, and as they finally transported it to the Black Rock Desert in Utah where it finally did its record breaking run.

The Internet was key to them – even in those early days. When they ran out of money, as they did several times, they put messages on their website seeking small donations from fans, and they got those and kept the project running. It was a real example of a community built around the record breaking attempt, of people who wanted to see this thing succeed, but also were just reveling in the sheer attempt.

I well remember logging on to read that they had succeeded – they had got the car to go supersonic on land and broken the land speed record. To break the record you have to do two passes along a measured track, once in each direction, and there are various other structures. Essentially the record is a speed that is sustained for some time. ThrustSSC first went supersonic on a day that it couldn’t do two passes, but it claimed the record two days later, officially timed at 760 mph or over 1200 kph.

Q: Who drives these things?

A: ThrustSSC’s driver is a fighter pilot called Andy Green.

This isn’t the end of the story, though. The record still stands, but Richard Noble wants to take it further again. He’s planning a new record breaking car to be called Bloodhound SSC, with a rocket engine and a jet engine. They are targeting 1,000 mph for this car. Remember, the existing record is around 730mph. That’s a huge jump.

There are some pretty serious technical problems with this of course. One is about finding somewhere big enough to do it. Even with the car accelerating and decelerating at 2 to 3 g they need 10-15 kilometres of clear flat surface. The team is scouting round the world at the moment looking for somewhere.

Then there is the issue with going supersonic. The point about going supersonic is that the air doesn’t just get out your way like it does at lower speeds – you have to manually shove every molecule of air because now sound wave of your passing has reached it yet. That leads to some very tricky aerodynamics which aren’t well understood.

And then there’s just building wheels which hold together under the strain – the edges of the wheels will be trying to fly apart at 50,000g.

Q: Who is supporting this?

It’s being given a lot of support by Paul Drayson, a British Minister who’s also a racing driver himself. He’s at pains to point out that there’s no public money going into the thing, it will all be private sponsorship.

Drayson justifies this by saying it will rekindle interest in the engineering challenges and energise a new generation of Britons to take up science and engineering. They are using the world “adventure” about the whole thing. But I think the last work should go to Richard Noble, the man who has driven a record breaker and made the supersonic car. He tells a story of walking through one of the corridors of Parliament in the UK, and getting stopped by one of the Parliamentary Police, who told him how much he admired Noble for the record breaking and how it had made his son change his degree from something advertising related to engineering. That’s what Drayson and Noble both want to achieve.


Wikipedia on the Land Speed Record.

The website of the 1998 record breaker, ThrustSSC, and of the 2011 hopeful, BloodhoundSSC, and a BBC article about it all.

posted by colin at 1:12 pm  

1 Comment

  1. […] 1000 mph. On land. I followed them as they looked for a desert where they could run this thing, as they proved the technology in the car, and as they finally transported it to the Black Rock Desert in Utah where it finally did its record breaking run. … […]

    Pingback by worldofwarcraft tech | IBM.COM IBM - United States — 27 November 2008 @ 2:33 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress