Theodore von Karman

Theodore von Karman 


Born in Jozsefvaros district of Budapest Hungary, on May 11, 1881. von skolloskislaki Karman Todor became to be known as Theodore von Karman. His scientific reputation rested on a series of profound insights on the nature of aerodynamics, which he demonstrated through a highly intuitive style of applied mathematics. He published more then two hundred papers, which laid much of the technical basis of flight. He forged scientific cooperation and founded a number of powerful aerospace institutions.

Described as one of eight true geniuses, Von Karman's inspiration for aeronautics came about during doctoral study at one of the world's foremost universities in the 1900s, the University of Göttingen. After an all-night party in Paris, a friend suggested that instead of going to sleep, they watch the French aviation pioneer Henri Farman fly his machine. Farman successfully completed a 2-kilometre (1.25-mile) course and Von Kármán embarked upon a long career in the aeronautical and astronautical sciences.

In 1911 he made an analysis of the alternating double row of vortices behind a bluff in a fluid stream, now famous as Kármán's Vortex Street. This happens when the air stream that flow around a body fails to stick to the shape, but instead breaks off behind it into a wave. This wave is a form of drag that tries to keep the object from flying, or in some instances can also cause damage. One example of this is the Tacoma narrows bridge. In 1940, a bridge was built across the narrowest section of Puget Sound, which connected the Olympic Peninsula with the rest of the state. On November 7, 1940, a forty-two mile per hour wind caused the bridge to oscillate with rhythmic up-down waves as large as twenty eight feet, as well as violent twisting spiral motions, which appeared to make the bridge roll completely over. After a couple of hours, the stresses on the bridge were too much and the bridge collapsed.

In 1912, von Karman became Professor as well as Director of Aeronautical Institute Aachen Germany, at the age of 31, remaining until 1930. In World War I, he was called into military service for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and eventually became head of research in the air force. At the Military Aircraft Factory ( Fischamend Austria) he led the development of the first helicopter tethered to the ground that was able to maintain hovering flight. This was developed to solve problems plaguing the observation balloons then in use. After WW1 , many students were attracted by the intellectual and social atmosphere von Karman created. To help reestablish contacts and friendships broken by the war, he was instrumental in calling an international congress on aerodynamics and hydrodynamics at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1922. This meeting resulted in the formation of the International Applied Mechanics Congress Committee, which continues to organize, and gave birth, in 1946, to the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, with von Kármán as honorary president. He began traveling widely in the 1920s as a lecturer and consultant to industry. His first visit to the United States in Fall 1926 was primarily to advise on establishing the new graduate school of California Institute of Technology Aeronautical Lab supported by the Douglas Aircraft Company, now Boeing. In 1930 he returned to assume the direction of the school, and shortly after his arrival at the California Institute of Technology, his laboratory became a Mecca of the world of the aeronautical sciences.

His personal scientific work continued unabated with important contributions to fluid mechanics, turbulence theory, supersonic flight, and mathematics in engineering, aircraft structures, and wind erosion of soil. His open-mindedness was well demonstrated by his involvement in the development of astronautics. In 1936, in spite of the general disbelief in academic circles in the possibilities of 'Buck Rogers'-style rocket propulsion and its applications, he supported the interest of a group of his students in the subject. Within two years the US Army Air Corps sponsored a project at his laboratory on the use of rockets to provide super-performance for conventional aircraft, especially to reduce their distance of takeoff from the ground and from naval aircraft carriers. This project was known as JATO (Jet Assist Take-off rockets.) These rockets were what started the company Aerojet, which is located in the city of Azusa. Other missiles that were made through the years are: AEROBEE FALCON, HAWK, BULLPUP, SPARROW, and Standard Missile.

In 1944, he became the cofounder of the present NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, when it undertook America's first governmental long-range missile and space-exploration research program for the US Ordnance Department. In 1944, he chaired the forerunner to the Pentagon's US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and as General Arnold put it, "You know, we've been winning this war by brute force and mass production and I don't like it. Maybe next time we won't be able to produce as fast and we'll get snowed under. I want you people to look ahead 20 years in aviation and tell us where we're going and how we are going to get there." This realization that the Allies were years behind influenced the development of extremely focused in-house research capability in a number of breakthrough technologies. The board's blueprint for post-war military systems was titled Where We Stand (which in 1945 predicted supersonic flight, ICBMs, nuclear warheads, and SAM missiles) and the 12-volume Toward New Horizons introduced by Von Kármán's SCIENCE: The Key to Air Supremacy

His dedication to international scientific cooperation led him, in 1947, to propose to the United Nations the establishment of an international research center for fluid and soil mechanics in the Middle East, which, though unfulfilled, contributed to the development by UNESCO of the Arid Zone Research Project in 1950. He conceived the idea of cooperation among aeronautical engineers of the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in 1951, obtained approval to launch the Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD), of which he was chairman until his death. In 1956, his efforts brought into being the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS) and, in 1960, the International Academy of Astronautics. One of the outstanding activities of the academy under his presidency was its sponsorship, in 1962, in Paris, of the First International Symposium on the Basic Environmental Problems of Man in Space, at which for the first time scientists from the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as other countries, exchanged information in this field. It was scientific exchanges such as these that secured arms limitation treaties between the super-powers and turned the nuclear clock back somewhat from "one minute to midnight". In the post-World War II years, there was hardly an Aeronautics Department in the world that if he visited, faculty members did not come out to greet their old mentor. And as had been his traditional teaching technique, they fell into immediate animated conversations about what was the latest in aerodynamics, what new theory, who solved what problem, and--always a von Kármán question--what cutting edge challenges faced the former students. In later years he was again associated with Aachen, Germany, where he died May 7, 1963..

In 1963 he was the first recipient of the National Medal of Science from President John Kennedy. He wrote his autobiography Wind and Beyond in 1967 and in 1992 Mike Gorn wrote The Universal Man: Theodore von Kármán's Life in Aeronautics from the perspective of a generation once removed from von Kármán's life, a life of enduring contributions to aeronautics and aerodynamics. Dr. von Karman was one of the world's foremost aerodynamicsts and scientists and is widely recognized as the father of modern aerospace science.




Cal Tech Archives "http:// archives/bios/KarmanTV.html"

A History of Aerojet: Chapters Http://

Von Karman Karman

The wind and Beyond, Theodore von Karman pioneer in aviation and pathfinder in space. Theodore von Karman with Lee Edson, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1967

The Universal Man, Theodore von Karman's life in Aeronautics. Michael H. Gorn Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1992


Marco Casillas


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