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Poisoning the well of English - "Pushing the envelope"
John Heelan of the UK suggests another origin for "pushing the envelope", based on the technical use of envelope as meaning the aluminum body of an aircraft, which can tolerate only so much resistance and therefore speed: "I seem to remember the expression gained great currency (and maybe originated) with fighter aircraft test pilots, whose role was to establish the "performance envelope" of the machine by "pushing" it to its limits and beyond. The expression was also adopted by the hi-tech world (and others) for expressing the action of somebody challenging the known limits of something".
Ronald Hilton - 1/31/02