Theodore von Kármán

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Theodore von Kármán
Theodore von Karman crop.jpg
Von Karman at the Caltech JPL in 1950
Born (1881-05-11)May 11, 1881
Budapest, Austria-Hungary
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Aachen, West Germany
Residence Hungary
United States
Citizenship Hungarian
Fields Aerospace Engineering
Institutions University of Göttingen,
RWTH Aachen,
California Institute of Technology,
von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics
Alma mater Budapest University of Technology and Economics
Thesis Untersuchungen über Knickfestigkeit (1908)
Doctoral advisor Ludwig Prandtl[1]
Doctoral students Frank Malina
Tsien Hsue-sen
Chia-Chiao Lin
Hu Ning
Maurice Anthony Biot
Ernest Sechler[1]
Known for Supersonic and hypersonic airflow characterization; Kármán vortex street
Notable awards ASME Medal (1941)
John Fritz Medal (1948)
Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy (1954)
Daniel Guggenheim Medal (1955)
Timoshenko Medal (1958)
National Medal of Science (1962)
Wilhelm Exner Medal (1962)
Foreign Member of the Royal Society[2]

Theodore von Kármán (Hungarian: Szőllőskislaki Kármán Tódor[pronunciation?]; May 11, 1881 – May 6, 1963) was a Hungarian-American mathematician, aerospace engineer and physicist who was active primarily in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics. He is responsible for many key advances in aerodynamics, notably his work on supersonic and hypersonic airflow characterization. He is regarded as the outstanding aerodynamic theoretician of the twentieth century.[3][4][5][6]

Early life

Von Kármán was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, Austria-Hungary as Kármán Tódor. One of his ancestors was Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.[2] He studied engineering at the city's Royal Joseph Technical University, known today as Budapest University of Technology and Economics. After graduating in 1902 he moved to Germany and joined Ludwig Prandtl at the University of Göttingen, and received his doctorate in 1908. He taught at Göttingen for four years. In 1912 accepted a position as director of the Aeronautical Institute at RWTH Aachen, one of the country's leading universities. His time at RWTH Aachen was interrupted by service in the Austro-Hungarian Army 1915–1918, where he designed an early helicopter. He is believed to have founded the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in September 1922 by organizing its first conference in Innsbruck.[7] He left RWTH Aachen in 1930.

Emigration and JPL

Von Kármán (center) during his work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1940

Apprehensive about developments in Europe, in 1930 he accepted the directorship of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) and migrated to the United States. In 1936, along with his graduate student Frank Malina and their experimental rocketry collaborator Jack Parsons, he founded a company Aerojet to manufacture JATO rocket motors. He later became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

He eventually became an important figure in supersonic motion, noting in a seminal paper that aeronautical engineers were “pounding hard on the closed door leading into the field of supersonic motion.”[8]

German activity during World War II increased U.S. military interest in rocket research. During the early part of 1943, the Experimental Engineering Division of the United States Army Air Forces Material Command forwarded to von Kármán reports from British intelligence sources describing German rockets capable of reaching more than 100 miles (160 km). In a letter dated 2 August 1943 von Kármán provided the Army with his analysis of and comments on the German program.[9]

In 1944 he and others affiliated with GALCIT founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is now a Federally funded research and development center managed and operated by Caltech under a contract from NASA. In 1946 he became the first chairman of the Scientific Advisory Group which studied aeronautical technologies for the United States Army Air Forces. He also helped found AGARD, the NATO aerodynamics research oversight group (1951), the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences (1956), the International Academy of Astronautics (1960), and the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Brussels (1956).

Last years

The "Kármán-Auditorium" at the RWTH Aachen University in Germany

In June 1944, von Kármán underwent surgery for intestinal cancer in New York City. The surgery caused two hernias, and von Kármán's recovery was slow. Early in September, while still in New York, he met with U.S. Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry H. Arnold on a runway at LaGuardia Airport. Hap Arnold then proposed that von Kármán move to Washington, D.C. to lead the Scientific Advisory Group and become a long-range planning consultant to the military. He returned to Pasadena around mid-September. Von Kármán was appointed to the SAG position on October 23, 1944, and left Caltech in December 1944.[10]

At age 81 von Kármán was the recipient of the first National Medal of Science, bestowed in a White House ceremony by President John F. Kennedy. He was recognized, "For his leadership in the science and engineering basic to aeronautics; for his effective teaching and related contributions in many fields of mechanics, for his distinguished counsel to the Armed Services, and for his promoting international cooperation in science and engineering."[11]

While on a trip to Aachen (Germany) in 1963, von Kármán died. He was buried in Pasadena, California.[12][13] He never married.

Von Kármán's fame was in the use of mathematical tools to study fluid flow,[14] and the interpretation of those results to guide practical designs. He was instrumental in recognizing the importance of the swept-back wings that are ubiquitous in modern jet aircraft.

Selected contributions

Specific contributions include theories of non-elastic buckling, unsteady wakes in circum-cylinder flow, stability of laminar flow, turbulence, airfoils in steady and unsteady flow, boundary layers, and supersonic aerodynamics. He made additional contributions in other fields, including elasticity, vibration, heat transfer, and crystallography. His name also appears in a number of concepts, for example:

Selected writings


  • von Kármán, T.; Burgers, J. M. (1924). General Aerodynamic Theory, 2 vols. Julius Springer.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • von Kármán, T.; Biot, M. A. (1940). Mathematical Methods in Engineering; An introduction to the Mathematical Treatment of Engineering Problems. McGraw-Hill. p. 505. ASIN B0006AOTLK.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • von Kármán, T.; Biot, M. A. (2004). Aerodynamics: Selected Topics in the Light of Their Historical Development. Dover Books on Aeronautical Engineering. Dover Publications. p. 224. ISBN 0486434850.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • von Kármán, T. (1956). Collected Works of Dr. T. von Kármán (1902–1951), 4 vols. Butterworth Scientific Publications.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • von Kármán, T. (1961). From Low-Speed Aerodynamics to Astronautics. Pergamon Press. ASIN B000H4OVPO.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • von Kármán, T.; Edson, L. (1967). The Wind and Beyond — T. von Kármán Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space. Little Brown. p. 376. ISBN 0316907537.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Honors and legacy

President Kennedy honors Dr. von Kármán.
Theodore von Kármán on a 1992 Hungarian stamp
  • Each year since 1960 the American Society of Civil Engineers has awarded to an individual the Theodore von Karman Medal, "in recognition of distinguished achievement in engineering mechanics."[15]
  • In 2005 von Kármán was named an Honorary Fellow of the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC). Fellows of the AEDC are recognized as, "People who have made exceptionally distinguished contributions to the center's flight testing mission."[16]
  • Craters on Mars and the Moon are named in his honor.
  • The boundary between the atmosphere and space is named the Kármán Line
  • In Irvine, CA there is a 5-mile street that runs through the heart of Irvine's business center named after him.
  • In 1977, RWTH Aachen University named its newly constructed lecture hall complex "Kármán-Auditorium" in memory of von Kármán's outstanding research contributions at the university's Aeronautical Institute.
  • An auditorium at JPL is named after von Kármán.[17]
  • An auditorium at AFRL is named after Arnold and von Kármán.
  • University of Southern California Professor Shirley Thomas (after nearly two decades of petitioning) was able to create a postage stamp in his honor.[18] It was first issued in 1992 with his image as an "Aerospace Scientist".
  • In 1963 President Kennedy awarded Kármán with the National Medal of Science: "Dr. von Karman, it is a great pleasure for me to select you as the first recipient of the National Medal of Science. I know of no one else who more completely represents all of the areas with which this award is appropriately concerned—science, engineering, and education."[19]
  • In 1957, Kármán became the first recipient of the Ludwig-Prandtl-Ring from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Society for Aeronautics and Astronautics) for "outstanding contribution in the field of aerospace engineering."
  • In 1956 von Kármán founded a research institute in Sint-Genesius-Rode, Belgium, which is now named after him: the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics.
  • In 1948 von Kármán was awarded the Franklin Medal.
  • The American Mathematical Society selected von Kármán as its Josiah Willard Gibbs Lecturer for 1939.[20][21]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Theodore von Kármán at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  2. 2.0 2.1 Goldstein, S. (1966). "Theodore von Karman 1881-1963". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 12: 334–326. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1966.0016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Chang, Iris, Thread of the silkworm, Basic Books, 1996, pages 47–60
  4. Greenberg, J. L.; Goodstein, J. R. (1983). "Theodore von Karman and Applied Mathematics in America". Science. 222 (4630): 1300–1304. doi:10.1126/science.222.4630.1300. PMID 17773321.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Theodore von Kármán", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  6. Sears, W. R. (1965). "Some Recollections of Theodore von Kármán". Journal of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. 13: 175. doi:10.1137/0113011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Alkemade, Dr. Ir. Fons (2010). "IUTAM | History". Amsterdam, The Netherlands: International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. Retrieved 29 December 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Hallion, Richard P. "The NACA, NASA, and the Supersonic-Hypersonic Frontier". NASA. NASA Technical Reports Server. Retrieved 7 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Development of the Corporal: the embryo of the army missile program, vol. 1" (PDF). Army Ballistic Missile Agency. p. 26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Bluth, John (July 15, 1994). "Von Karman, Malina laid the groundwork for the future JPL". Jet Propulsion Laboratory UNIVERSE. JPL. 24 (14).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details". NSF.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Theodor von Kármán".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "JPL 101" (PDF). JPL.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Sears, W. R. (1986). "Von Kármán: Fluid Dynamics and Other Things". Physics Today. 39: 34–31. doi:10.1063/1.881063.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Theodore von Karman Medal". ASCE.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "AEDC Fellows". Arnold Air Force Base.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Bilger, Burkhard (April 22, 2013) "The Martian Chroniclers", The New Yorker. Retrieved 2013-04-23.
  18. "1992 29¢ Theodore von Karman Stamps Scott #2699". Exploring Space Stamps.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Kennedy, John F. (February 18, 1963) "Remarks Upon Presenting the National Medal of Science to Theodore von Karman". The American Presidency Project.
  20. Josiah Willard Gibbs Lectures. American Mathematical Society
  21. von Kármán,Theodore (1940). "The engineer grapples with nonlinear problems". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 46 (8): 615–683. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1940-07266-0. MR 0003131.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • I. Chang, Thread of the Silkworm. Perseus Books Group (1995). ISBN 0-465-08716-7.
  • D. S. Halacy, Jr., Father of Supersonic Flight: Theodor von Kármán (1965).
  • M. H. Gorn, The Universal Man: Theodore von Kármán's Life in Aeronautics (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992).
  • G. Gabrielli, "Theodore von Kármán", Atti Accad. Sci. Torino Cl. Sci. Fis. Mat. Natur. 98 (1963/1964), 471–485.
  • J. L. Greenberg and J. R. Goodstein, "Theodore von Kármán and applied mathematics in America," A century of mathematics in America II (Providence, R.I., 1989), 467–477.
  • R. C. Hall, "Shaping the course of aeronautics, rocketry, and astronautics: Theodore von Kármán, 1881–1963," J. Astronaut. Sci. 26 (4) (1978), 369–386.
  • J. Polásek, "Theodore von Kármán and applied mathematics" (Czech), Pokroky Mat. Fyz. Astronom. 28 (6) (1983), 301–310.
  • F. L. Wattendorf, "Theodore von Kármán, international scientist," Z. Flugwiss. 4 (1956), 163–165.
  • F. L. Wattendorf and F. J. Malina, "Theodore von Kármán, 1881–1963," Astronautica Acta 10 (1964), 81.

External links