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Orowan was born in the Óbuda district of Budapest. His father, Berthold (d. 1933), was a mechanical engineer and factory manager, and his mother, Josze (Josephine) Spitzer Ságvári, was the daughter of an impoverished land owner.
In 1920 he went to the University of Vienna, where he studied chemistry for one year and astronomy for another. After six months of mandatory apprenticeship done home in Hungary, he was admitted to the Technical University of Berlin, where he studied mechanical and then electrical engineering. Eventually he started his own experiments in physics, where he was adopted as a student by Professor Richard Becker in 1928. In 1932 he completed his doctorate on the fracture of mica.
Soon after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Orowan, who was of partially Jewish descent, left for Hungary, where in 1934 he wrote the paper on dislocations he had been doing the experiments for while still in Berlin, which supported the theory put forward in Becker's 1925 paper. 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.
In Hungary 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. From 1936-1939 he worked for the Tungsram light bulbs manufacturer, where, with the help of Mihály (Michael) Polanyi, he developed a new process for the extraction of krypton from the air.
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).
- F.R.N. Nabarro and A. S. Argon (1995). "Egon Orowan. 2 August 1901 — 3 August 1989. Elected F.R.S. 1947". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. London: The Royal Society. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Oral History Transcript — Dr. Egon Orowan. Interview with Dr. Egon Orowan by S. T. Keith in Belmont, Massachusetts, October 4, 1981". The History Programs. The American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library & Archives. October 4, 1981. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- F.R.N. Nabarro and A. S. Argon (1996). "Egon Orowan (1901—1989): A Biographical Memoir" (PDF). Biographical Memoirs [of deceased members of the National Academy of Sciences]. Washington D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, National Academies Press. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Personalia" (PDF). AJR Information, May 1947. London: Association of Jewish Refugees in Great Britain (AJR). May 1947. p. 36. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
Four refugees who came to England because of Hitler's anti-Jewish acts... honoured recently by an election into the Fellowship of the Royal Society. [...] Dr. Egon Orowan (formerly Technische Hochschule, Berlin), Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge; ...
- Egon Orowan. 1901—1989. A Biographical Memoir by F.R.N. Nabarro and A. S. Argon. 1996. National Academies Press. Washington D.C.
- Interview with Dr. Egon Orowan in 1981. Dr. Orowan speaks about his professional life. Transcript of interview tapes.
- Kovács László. Orován Egon szilárdtestfizikus születésének centenáriumán. Magyar Tudomány, 2002/3 372.