"Von Kármán" redirects here. For the lunar crater, see Von Kármán (lunar crater).

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

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, where he received his doctorate in 1908. He taught at Göttingen for four years. In 1912 he accepted a position as director of the Aeronautical Institute at RWTH Aachen, one of the leading German universities. His time at RWTH Aachen was interrupted by service in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1915 to 1918, during which time he designed the Petróczy-Kármán-Žurovec, an early helicopter.

After the war he returned to Aachen with his mother and sister Josephine de Karman. 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. Karman engaged Wolfgang Klemperer to design a competitive glider.[7]

Josephine encouraged 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.[8] Kármán left his post at 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 Kármán accepted the directorship of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) and migrated to the United States. His student E. E. Sechler took up the problem of making reliable airframes for aircraft, and with Kármán's support, developed an understanding of aeroelasticity.

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

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 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.[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).

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."[10]

Last years

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

In June 1944, 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 U.S. 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.[11]

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."[12]

Kármán never married. He died on a trip to Aachen, Germany, in 1963, 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.[13]

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


  • Kármán, T. von; Burgers, J. M. (1924). General Aerodynamic Theory, 2 vols. Julius Springer. 
  • Kármán, T. von; Biot, M. A. (1940). Mathematical Methods in Engineering; An introduction to the Mathematical Treatment of Engineering Problems. McGraw-Hill. p. 505. ASIN B0006AOTLK. 
  • Kármán, T. von; 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. 
  • Kármán, T. von (1956). Collected Works of Dr. T. von Kármán (1902–1951), 4 vols. Butterworth Scientific Publications. 
  • Kármán, T. von (1961). From Low-Speed Aerodynamics to Astronautics. Pergamon Press. ASIN B000H4OVPO. 
  • Kármán, T. von; Edson, L. (1967). The Wind and Beyond — T. von Kármán Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space. Little Brown. p. 376. ISBN 0316907537. 

Honors and legacy

President Kennedy honors Theodore von Kármán.
Theodore von Kármán on a Hungarian stamp of 1992


  1. ^ a b Theodore von Kármán at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  2. ^ a b 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. 
  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. 
  5. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Theodore von Kármán", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
  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. 
  7. ^ Theodore von Kármán with Lee Edson (1967) The Wind and Beyond, page 98
  8. ^ Alkemade, Dr. Ir. Fons (2010). "IUTAM | History". Amsterdam, The Netherlands: International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. Retrieved 29 December 2010. 
  9. ^ "Development of the Corporal: the embryo of the army missile program, vol. 1" (PDF). Army Ballistic Missile Agency. p. 26. 
  10. ^ Hallion, Richard P. "The NACA, NASA, and the Supersonic-Hypersonic Frontier". NASA. NASA Technical Reports Server. Retrieved 7 September 2011. 
  11. ^ Bluth, John (July 15, 1994). "Von Karman, Malina laid the groundwork for the future JPL". Jet Propulsion Laboratory UNIVERSE (JPL) 24 (14). 
  12. ^ "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details". NSF. 
  13. ^ Theodore von Kármán at Find a Grave
  14. ^ Sears, W. R. (1986). "Von Kármán: Fluid Dynamics and Other Things". Physics Today 39: 34–31. Bibcode:1986PhT....39a..34S. doi:10.1063/1.881063. 
  15. ^ "Theodore von Karman Medal". ASCE. 
  16. ^ "AEDC Fellows". Arnold Air Force Base. 
  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. 
  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. ^ Kármán, Theodore von (1940). "The engineer grapples with nonlinear problems". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 46 (8): 615–683. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1940-07266-0. MR 003131. 
  22. ^ http://galcit.caltech.edu/ahs/index.html

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