This phrase first became popular in literary writings following the publication of the book, The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe in 1979. The book is about space program. He uses this phrase in the first chapter of this book where it goes thus; “One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’… [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.” It means to approach limits of all the possibilities, or what is acceptable in the existing situation.
It is a figurative expression, which means stretching the boundaries. The phrase is used in the context of moving past all the limits of that has already been done, or that is accepted standard of this age or time. By 1978, this phrase appeared in, and the following year Wolfe picked it up and demonstrated its use as a piece of technical jargon in general language. Since World War II, it has been in use in aeronautics, describing upper and lower limits of engine power, and speed, etc. Thus, this term describes pilots, determining how far their planes would go. Simply, it implies to take something to the next level of its development, progress or evolution.
This phrase is mostly used in the workplace environment. It can be referred to someone doing a great job better than done or performed by him in the past. These days, this phrase is applicable to other fields of life concerning something done beyond the actual boundaries, such as ultimate effort of a racing driver. In the world of politics, it implies the time required to get back strength in order to dominate the world, or the political opponent.
Tom Wolfe has used this expression in his book, The Right Stuff, where he writes;
“One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’… [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.”
It is true that Wolfe did not coin this term, but he used it in such a way that it became a general jargon instead of specific one used in engineering and mathematics.
In his book, Wolfe has vividly described the life of test pilots during fifties and sixties, where this phrase appears. It is about those test pilots busy in experimentation in the post WWII America. They are engaged in using high speed planes and documenting stories of first Project Mercury in which astronauts were chosen for NASA space program. The author wanted to figure out the reason why astronauts took the dangerous path of space flight, and then he recounts enormous mental and physical risks they took during training through this phrase. In fact, this phrase serves as a jargon in the field of aeronautical engineering, meaning “the known limits of a more safe performance.” It shows a set of curves used to describe maximum performance and work of a plane within the given parameters. The test pilots usually have to take their aircraft beyond such limits and fly the plane higher and faster than it had been ever before to establish what aircrafts could do.
- Jargon: the phrase is a jargon conveying hidden meaning and has been used in a technical piece of writing