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Orowan was born in the Óbuda district of Budapest. His father, Berthold, was a mechanical engineer and factory manager, and his mother, Josze Spitzer Ságvári was the daughter of an impoverished land owner. In 1928, Orowan commenced his education at the Technical University of Berlin in mechanical and electrical engineering but soon transferred to physics, completing his doctorate on the fracture of mica in 1932. He seems to have experienced some difficulty in finding immediate employment and spent the next few years living with his mother and ruminating on his doctoral research.
In 1934, Orowan, roughly contemporarily with G. I. Taylor and Michael Polanyi, realized that the plastic deformation of ductile materials could be explained in terms of the theory of dislocations developed by Vito Volterra in 1905. Though the discovery was neglected until after World War II, it was critical in developing the modern science of solid mechanics.
After working for a short while on the extraction of krypton from the air for the manufacture of light bulbs, in 1937 Orowan moved to the University of Birmingham, UK where he worked on the theory of fatigue collaborating with Rudolf Peierls.
In 1939, he moved to the University of Cambridge where William Lawrence Bragg inspired his interest in x-ray diffraction. During World War II, he worked on problems of munitions production, particularly that of plastic flow during rolling. In 1944, he was central to the reappraisal of the causes of the loss of many Liberty ships during the war, identifying the critical issues of the notch sensitivity of poor quality welds and the aggravating effects of the extreme low temperatures of the North Atlantic.
In the latter study, Orowan developed the writings of the 14th century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun to forecast a supposed eventual failure of market demand similar to that claimed by Karl Marx. His ideas found little acceptance among the majority of economists.
- Fellow of the Royal Society, (1947)
- Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, (1951)
- Member of the National Academy of Sciences, (1969);
- Bingham Medal of the American Society of Rheology, (1959);
- Gauss Medal of the Braunschweiger Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft, (1968);
- Vincent Bendix Gold Medal of the American Society for Engineering Education, (1971);
- Paul Bergse Medal of the Danish Metallurgical Society, (1973);
- The Acta Metallurgica Gold Medal, (1985).
- Nabarro, F. R. N.; Argon, A. S. (1995). "Egon Orowan. 2 August 1902-3 August 1989". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 41: 316. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1995.0020.
- Egon Orowan. 1901—1989. A Biographical Memoir by F.R.N. Nabarro and A. S. Argon. 1996. National Academies Press. Washington D.C.
- Kovács László. Orován Egon szilárdtestfizikus születésének centenáriumán. Magyar Tudomány, 2002/3 372.