Consider the Sound Barrier, which was my first experience of international events and absolutely the most exciting thing in the world going on at the time. Throughout 1952 and 1953, to the wide-eyed awe of pre-teenage boys like me, British jet pilots crept closer and closer to Mach 1.0, the speed of sound, and finally broke through. Thereafter over every city in the Empire, Melbourne included, pilots amused themselves causing sonic booms that cracked windows and rattled crockery, much to the huge annoyance of womankind in general, who just couldn’t comprehend how important this was.
Only then did the usually boastful Americans admit that they had done it five years earlier. On October 14th, 1948, the legendary Chuck Yeager burst through in his Bell X-1 rocketplane. The powers that were had decided that his achievement was a Top Secret for no sensible reason that anyone could think of, and so Yeager missed his fifteen minutes of fame.
Needless to say, I was on the British side in this, for in those days to be Australian was to be British. When I tried to imagine Yeager, the picture I got was of a cowboy in stetson and six-guns on hips, tethering his horse to a cactus and climbing aboard the chubby X-1 for a bit of a spin above the desert. Which, as it happened, was not too far from the truth, given the sort of bloke Yeager was. I didn’t seem to realise, at the time, that there was another sort of America, a modern one and quite a different place to the Wild West.
In any case, these upstarts got theirs in the end when the British cried foul—the X-1 was a rocket, not a plane, they declared, and anyway had to be dropped from a larger aircraft at high attitude in order to fly, whereas the British had made their achievement in conventional aircraft. The squabble went on for a couple of minutes and then faded away as did the sonic booms, for eventually, bans were imposed disallowing them over populated areas, a ban which dogged the Concorde decades later. There was never any such thing as the sound barrier, a sensationalist term invented by journalists, except in the very real form of Americans keeping unnecessary secrets from their friends.