The ‘Father of Supersonic Flight,’ he made fundamental contributions to the theory and practice of aerodynamics.
Theodore von Kármán was born on May 11, 1881, into a prosperous German-speaking family in Budapest, Hungary. His mother, a descendant of a distinguished family from Bohemia, and his father, a noted professor of philosophy and education, recognized Theodore’s aptitude for science and math at an early age. His father discouraged his son’s love of mathematics, however, and forced him to pursue engineering as a career. Theodore graduated with highest honors as a mechanical engineer from the Budapest Royal Technical University in 1902, and after a year of compulsory military service in the Austro-Hungarian army became a faculty member of the Palatine Joseph Polytechnic in Budapest.
In 1906, von Kármán received a scholarship to the University of Göttingen in Germany, earning a Ph.D. in engineering there in 1908. In March of that year, he made a trip to Paris, where he watched an airplane flight by French aviation pioneer Henri Farman. As a result, von Kármán began a lifelong interest in the application of mathematics to aeronautics. In 1911, after conducting wind tunnel experiments, he made an important analysis of the alternating double row of vortices behind a flat body in a fluid flow, now known as Kármán’s Vortex Street.
In 1913, Theodore von Kármán became director of the Aachen Aerodynamics Institute, and a professor at the Technical University in Aachen, Germany. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he returned to Austria-Hungary and became head of Research for the Austro-Hungarian Army Aviation Corp. Although his ideas were not pursued, he built a proto-type helicopter during the war.
Due to the political upheaval in Hungary at the end of World War I, Theodore von Kármán returned to Aachen in 1919 to resume his post of head of the Aeronautical Institute, a position he retained until 1930. During this period he designed and built the first wind tunnels at Aachen, and in 1926, the first in California. Four years later he was offered the post of director of the Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Concerned by the rise of the Nazis in Germany, he accepted, though it meant leaving his beloved Aachen. He became a U.S. citizen in 1936.
Dr. von Kármán was head of the Caltech Guggenheim Aeronautical Labs at Pasadena from 1930 to 1957. In 1935, he began a long association with Frank J. Malina, one of his graduate students. In 1945, their collaboration resulted in America’s first high altitude sounding rocket, the WAC Corporal. In 1938, Theodore von Kármán chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee, and in 1941, co-founded Aerojet General, to develop rocket engines for the U.S. military. In 1944, von Kármán and Malina played a key role in the creation of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
The same year, Dr. von Kármán was chairman of the Army Air Corps Scientific Advisory Group. In that role, he oversaw the production of “Where We Stand,” a report that formed much of the basis of the technical needs of the U.S. Air Force in the Cold War that followed World War II. For the rest of his career, von Kármán continued to work closely with the U.S. military, as he had earlier with the Austro-Hungarian army.
In 1946, he helped found the Scientific Advisory Board to the Chiefs of Staff. In 1951, Dr. von Kármán was instrumental in establishing the Advisory Group on Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD) NATO’s aeronautical research arm and also served as its first chairman. In 1956, he helped establish the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences, and the von Kármán Institute for Fluid Dynamics. In 1960, he co-founded the International Academy of Astronautics. Theodore von Kármán received many honors for his pioneering work in aerodynamics, including the Medal for Merit in 1946, and the Franklin Gold Medal in 1948. In 1963, he received the first National Medal of Science, presented by President John F. Kennedy.
Dr. Von Kármán’s 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 than 200 papers, which identified much of the technical basis of flight. He forged scientific cooperation, developed many theories of aeronautical and space science, and played an important role in the creation of supersonic aircraft and ballistic missiles.
Dr. Theodore Von Kármán died at the age of eighty-one in Aachen, Germany on May 7, 1963. He was buried in Pasadena, near the Jet Propulsion Lab he helped found. Von Kármán Crater on Mars is named in his honor. He is also commemorated through the Theodore von Kármán Prize, established by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 1968, the prize is awarded for a notable application of mathematics to mechanics and/or the engineering sciences made during the five to ten years preceding the award.