Theodore von Kármán

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Theodore von Kármán
Von Kármán in 1957
Tivadar Mihály Kármán

(1881-05-11)May 11, 1881
DiedMay 6, 1963(1963-05-06) (aged 81)
Resting placeHollywood Forever Cemetery
Hollywood, California U.S.
  • Hungary
  • United States
Alma mater
Known for
Scientific career
FieldsAerospace Engineering
Thesis Investigations on buckling strength  (1908)
Doctoral advisorLudwig Prandtl[2]
Doctoral students[2]

Theodore von Kármán (Hungarian: (szőllőskislaki) Kármán Tódor [(søːløːʃkiʃlɒki) ˈkaːrmaːn ˈtoːdor], born Tivadar Mihály Kármán, 11 May 1881 – 6 May 1963), was a Hungarian-American mathematician, aerospace engineer, and physicist who worked in aeronautics and astronautics. He was responsible for crucial advances in aerodynamics characterizing supersonic and hypersonic airflow. The human-defined threshold of outer space is named the "Kármán line" in recognition of his work. Kármán is regarded as an outstanding aerodynamic theoretician of the 20th century.[3][4][5]

Early life[edit]

Theodore von Kármán was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, as Kármán Tódor, the son of Helene (Konn or Kohn, Hungarian: Kohn Ilka) and Mór Kármán [eo].[1] Among his ancestors were Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who was said to be the creator of the Golem of Prague, and Rabbi Moses ben Menachem Mendel Kunitz [hu; he], who wrote about Zohar.[1] His father, Mór, was a well-known educator, who reformed the Hungarian school system and founded Minta Gymnasium in Budapest. He became an influential figure and became a commissioner of the Ministry of Education,[6] and was responsible for "planning an education of a young archduke, the Emperor's cousin". In 1907 Mór Karman was ennobled, Theodore later described it:[7]

To receive a predicate of nobility, my father had to be landed. Fortunately he owned a small vineyard near Budapest, so the Emperor bestowed upon him the predicate "von Szőllőskislaki" (small grape). I have shortened it to von, for even to me, a Hungarian, the full title is almost unpronounceable.[7]

Theodore had three brothers (among them Elemér Kármán [eo]) and one sister, Josephine. At age six, he could "perform large mental calculations",[8] for example multiplication of six-digit numbers.[7] Father discouraged Theodore's mathematical education, he was afraid that his son would be a child prodigy and a freak.[8] He was tutored by his father and his father's former student; later he entered the Minta Gymnasium in Budapest. He won Eötvös Prize "for the best student in mathematics and science in the whole of Hungary" in his last year at Minta.[8][a]

He studied engineering at the city's Royal Joseph Technical University (Budapest University of Technology and Economics). He graduated in 1902 with a degree in mechanical engineering, his thesis was "The motion of a heavy rod supported on its rounded end by a horizontal plane". He then served a year as an artillery cadet in the Austro-Hungarian army.[8] In 1903-1906 he worked as an assistant at the Royal Joseph Technical University. In 1906 he moved to the German Empire and joined Ludwig Prandtl at the University of Göttingen, where he received his doctorate in 1908, for his research on "mathematical models for the buckling of large structures".[8] He taught at Göttingen for four years. In 1913 he accepted a position as director of the Aeronautical Institute at RWTH Aachen University, a leading German university. His time at RWTH Aachen was interrupted by service in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1915 to 1918, during World War I, when he designed the Petróczy-Kármán-Žurovec, an early helicopter.[8]

After the war, in 1919, he returned to Aachen with his mother and sister Josephine. Some of his students took an interest in gliding and saw the competitions of the Rhön-Rossitten Gesellschaft as an opportunity to advance in aeronautics. Kármán engaged Wolfgang Klemperer to design a competitive glider.[10]

Josephine encouraged her brother Theodore to expand his science beyond national boundaries. They organized the first international conference in mechanics held in September 1922 in Innsbruck. Subsequent conferences were organized as the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics.[11]

In 1926, Karman was first invited to the USA by the California Institute of Technology to build a wind tunnel.[12][8] In 1930 he was invited for a position of a full-time director of the Aeronautical Laboratory at California Institute of Technology; his mother and sister, Josephine, also moved to California.[8]

Emigration and JPL[edit]

1931 drawing of Theodore von Kármán
Von Kármán (center) during his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1940

Apprehensive about developments in Europe regarding Nazism, in 1930 Kármán accepted the directorship of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT).[12] The directorship included provision for a research assistant, and he selected Frank Wattendorf, an American who had been studying for three years in Aachen.[13]

Another student Ernest Edwin Sechler took up the problem of making reliable airframes for aircraft, and with Kármán's support, developed an understanding of aeroelasticity.

In 1936, Kármán engaged the legal services of Andrew G. Haley to form the Aerojet Corporation, with his graduate student Frank Malina and their experimental rocketry collaborators Jack Parsons and Edward Forman to manufacture JATO rocket motors. Kármán later became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

In 1940, Kármán was selected by John M. Carmody, Administrator of the Federal Works Agency to be on the Board of Engineers tasked with investigating the November 7, 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge outside Tacoma, Washington. His expertise was instrumental in discovering the effect of aerodynamic forces on the bridge, causing its unusual "galloping" behavior and eventual collapse. Along with Civil Engineers Othmar Amman and Glenn B. Woodruff, he published the report "The Failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge"[14] on March 28, 1941.

German activity during World War II increased US military interest in rocket research. In early 1943, the Experimental Engineering Division of the United States Army Air Forces Material Command forwarded to Kármán reports from British intelligence sources describing German rockets capable of travelling more than 100 miles (160 km). In a letter dated 2 August 1943 Kármán provided the Army with his analysis of and comments on the German program.[15]

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 Sint-Genesius-Rode, south of Brussels (1956).

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."[16]

Last years[edit]

In June 1944, von Kármán underwent surgery for intestinal cancer in New York City. The surgery caused two hernias, and Kármán's recovery was slow. Early in September, while still in New York, he met US Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry H. Arnold on a runway at LaGuardia Airport, and Arnold then proposed that Kármán should move to Washington, D.C. to lead the Scientific Advisory Group and become a long-range planning consultant to the military. Kármán returned to Pasadena around mid-September, was appointed to the SAG position on October 23, 1944, and left Caltech in December 1944.[17]

At the age of 81 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."[18]

Kármán never married. He died on a trip to Aachen, West Germany, in 1963, five days short of his 82nd birthday,[19] and his body was returned to the United States to be entombed in the Beth Olam Mausoleum at what is now the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.[20] He has sometimes been described as one of The Martians.[21]

Kármán's fame was in the use of mathematical tools to study fluid flow,[22] and the interpretation of those results to guide practical designs. He was instrumental in recognizing the importance of swept-back wings ubiquitous in modern jet aircraft.

Selected contributions[edit]

Theodore von Kármán, left, is joined by Air Force and NASA officials while inspecting two of the models used in the high velocity, high altitude wind tunnels at Arnold Air Force Base, 1959. The missiles are Agard-B and Atlas Series B.

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[edit]


  • von Kármán, Theodore; Burgers, J. M. (1924). General Aerodynamic Theory. 2 vols., Julius Springer.
  • von Kármán, Theodore; Biot, M. A. (1940). Mathematical Methods in Engineering; An introduction to the Mathematical Treatment of Engineering Problems. McGraw-Hill. pp. 505. ASIN B0006AOTLK.
  • von Kármán, Theodore; Biot, M. A. (2004). Aerodynamics: Selected Topics in the Light of Their Historical Development. Dover Books on Aeronautical Engineering. Dover Publications. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-486-43485-8.
  • von Kármán, Theodore (1956). Collected Works of Dr. T. von Kármán (1902–1951). 4 vols., Butterworth Scientific Publications.
  • von Kármán, Theodore (1961). From Low-Speed Aerodynamics to Astronautics. Pergamon Press. ASIN B000H4OVPO.
  • von Kármán, Theodore; Edson, L. (1967). The Wind and Beyond—T. von Kármán Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space. Little Brown. p. 376. ISBN 978-0-316-90753-8.


Four years after Kármán died his autobiography The Wind and Beyond was published by Lee Edson with Little, Brown and Company. Seven major academic journals then followed with book reviews by noted authors: As the book was non-technical, written for the general reader, Thomas P. Hughes[23] cited that as problematic given the technical context of Kármán's work. Hughes conceded that Kármán "exhibited a genius for finding the simplifying assumptions that made possible the mathematical analysis." While acknowledging Kármán's gifts as an applied mathematician and teacher, Stanley Corrsin points out that the autobiography is "marriage between a man and his ego." In the later part of his life, Kármán was a "planner of global symposia and societies" and a "consultant to the upper echelons of the Pentagon corps."[24]

On creativity, Kármán wrote "the finest creative thought comes not out of organized teams but out of the quiet of one's own world."[10]: 307  In his review[25] I. B. Holley noted "penetrating insights into the creative process, its ingredients, nurture and exploitation." According to Holley, Kármán was given to "convivial drinking and the company of beautiful women."

An enthusiastic review by J. Kestin[26] advised readers to buy and study the book, and prize it as a reference. On the other hand, Charles Süsskind[27] faults Kármán for his contempt for the conventional (gaminarie). Süsskind expected the book to show some reaction to Wernher von Braun's coming to America, and some clarification of the Hsue-shen Tsien affair, rather than "lapses into generalities". Süsskind also tags Kármán as a militarist: a "forthright engineer who is quite unabashed about his lifelong association with military authorities in whatever country he happened to reside at the time."

Sydney Goldstein, who also wrote the Royal Society memoir for Kármán, reviewed the autobiography[28] and remembered "an eminent engineer and scientist, warm-hearted and witty, much traveled, well-known by many, devoted to international collaboration, who, in his own words, as a scientist found the military 'the most comfortable group to deal with'".

Honors and legacy[edit]

Presentation of the National Medal of Science to Theodore von Kármán by President Kennedy.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ von Karman's own recollections about the prize and competition: "Selected students were kept in a closed room and given difficult mathematics problems, which demanded creative and even daring thinking. The teacher of the pupil who won the prize would gain great distinction, so the competition was keen and teachers worked hard to prepare their best students. I tried out for this prize against students of great attainments, and to my delight I managed to win. Now, I note that more than half of all the famous expatriate Hungarian scientists, and almost all the well-known ones in the United States, have won this prize."[9]


  1. ^ a b c Goldstein, S. (1966). "Theodore von Karman 1881–1963". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 12: 334–365. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1966.0016. S2CID 72977857.
  2. ^ a b Theodore von Kármán at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  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. Bibcode:1983Sci...222.1300G. doi:10.1126/science.222.4630.1300. PMID 17773321. S2CID 19738034.
  5. ^ Sears, W. R. (1965). "Some Recollections of Theodore von Kármán". Journal of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. 13: 175–183. doi:10.1137/0113011.
  6. ^ "Theodore von Kármán | Aerospace Engineer, Physicist & Mathematician | Britannica". 7 May 2023. Retrieved 6 June 2023.
  7. ^ a b c Rhodes, Richard (18 September 2012). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon and Schuster. pp. 104–108. ISBN 978-1-4391-2622-6. Retrieved 5 June 2023.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Theodore von Kármán", MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, University of St Andrews
  9. ^ Náray-Szabó, Gábor; G, Palló (2012), The Hungarian Gymnasium Educational Experience and Its Influence on the Global Power Shift, Global Science & Technology Forum, ISBN 9780615573106, retrieved 6 June 2023
  10. ^ a b Theodore von Kármán with Lee Edson (1967) The Wind and Beyond, page 98
  11. ^ Alkemade, Dr. Ir. Fons (2010). "IUTAM History". Amsterdam, the Netherlands: International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 29 December 2010.
  12. ^ a b Sears, William R.; Sears, Mabel R. (January 1979). "The Karman Years at Galcit". Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics. 11 (1): 1–11. Bibcode:1979AnRFM..11....1S. doi:10.1146/annurev.fl.11.010179.000245. ISSN 0066-4189.
  13. ^ Thomas, Shirley (1991). "Theodore von Kármán: The Consummate Educator". Leonardo. 24 (4): 419–426. doi:10.2307/1575519. ISSN 0024-094X. JSTOR 1575519. S2CID 146916763.
  14. ^ Othmar H. Ammann, Theodore von Kármán and Glenn B. Woodruff. The Failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a report to the administrator. Report to the Federal Works Agency, Washington, 1941
  15. ^ "Development of the Corporal: the embryo of the army missile program, vol. 1" (PDF). Army Ballistic Missile Agency. p. 26. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-03-26.
  16. ^ Dick, Steven J., ed. (2010). "Chapter 10: The NACA, NASA, and the Supersonic-Hypersonic Frontier". NASA's First 50 Years Historical Perspectives (PDF). NASA. pp. 223–274. ISBN 978-0-16-084965-7. LCCN 2009015085. SP-2010-4704. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 7, 2023. Retrieved June 6, 2023.
  17. ^ Bluth, John (July 15, 1994). "Von Karman, Malina laid the groundwork for the future JPL". Jet Propulsion Laboratory UNIVERSE. 24 (14).
  18. ^ "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details". NSF.
  19. ^ Physics Today
  20. ^ Legends of Hollywood Forever Cemetery
  21. ^ A marslakók legendája - György Marx
  22. ^ Sears, W. R. (1986). "Von Kármán: Fluid Dynamics and Other Things". Physics Today. 39 (1): 34. Bibcode:1986PhT....39a..34S. doi:10.1063/1.881063.
  23. ^ Thomas P. Hughes (1968) The American Historical Review
  24. ^ Stanley Corrsin (1968) Isis 59(2)
  25. ^ I. B. Holley (1968) Science v 159 #3814
  26. ^ J. Kestin (1969) Journal of Applied Mechanics 36(1)
  27. ^ Charles Süsskind (1968) Technology and Culture
  28. ^ Sydney Goldstein (1968) Journal of Fluid Mechanics 33(2) doi:10.1017/S0022112068221390
  29. ^ "Theodore von Karman". Retrieved 2023-04-28.
  30. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 2023-04-28.
  31. ^ "Theodore von Karman". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 9 February 2023. Retrieved 2023-04-28.
  32. ^ "Theodore von Karman Medal". ASCE. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30.
  33. ^ Sprekelmeyer, Linda, editor. These We Honor: The International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Donning Co. Publishers, 2006. ISBN 978-1-57864-397-4.
  34. ^ "von Karman Award". International Academy of Astronautics. Archived from the original on 2009-12-15. Retrieved 2019-04-10.
  35. ^ "AEDC Fellows". Arnold Air Force Base.
  36. ^ Bilger, Burkhard (April 22, 2013) "The Martian Chroniclers", The New Yorker. Retrieved 2013-04-23.
  37. ^ "Von Kármán Lecture Series". Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  38. ^ "1992 29¢ Theodore von Karman Stamps Scott #2699". Exploring Space Stamps.
  39. ^ Kennedy, John F. (February 18, 1963) "Remarks Upon Presenting the National Medal of Science to Theodore von Karman" Archived 2015-02-20 at the Wayback Machine. The American Presidency Project.
  40. ^ "Theodor Von Karman". The Franklin Institute. 2014-01-15. Retrieved 2022-09-23.
  41. ^ Josiah Willard Gibbs Lectures. American Mathematical Society
  42. ^ 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.
  43. ^ "The International von Kármán Wings Award". Caltech. Retrieved 23 February 2023.
  44. ^ Fontos események, retrieved 10 June 2019.
  45. ^ "Enshrinee Theodore Karman". National Aviation Hall of Fame. Retrieved 28 February 2023.

External links[edit]