Theodore von Kármán was one of the few truly giants of aeronautics that could compete with the great minds of the twentieth century. A genius by all accounts, he made fundamental contributions to the theory and practice of aerodynamics and related technologies well into his late age. During his long career he had three and a half good ideas, which would place him in the top league.
The events of his life are food for thought of many books; they included circumstances such as:
(see in particular his autobiography). In his own lifetime he was intimate with high ranking military and political figures in two continents, from WWI to WWII and the Cold War; with the top scientists of the century (Hilbert, Born, Bohr, Einstein, Fermi, Millikan, Sommerfeld, to name a few); with the top aeronautical industrialists (von Zeppelin, Junkers, Douglas, Northrop). As the scientists of the Manhattan Project, he would help shape the direction of the American military in the years of the Cold War.
He was involved in a staggering number of technical projects: from the Zeppelins to rockets, from gliders to jet airplanes. He built a prototype helicopter for the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI, that was the first teethered vehicle to fly (the captive helicopter).
He designed and built the first wind tunnel at Aachen, Caltech, and Kobe (Japan) for the Kawanishi Industries. In 1936 he started his own company with former student and life time friend Frank Malina. The company was Aerojet, the first manufacturer of JATO (Jet-Assisted Take Off) rocket motors.
His responsibilities included: professor and head of the Aeronautical Institute at the University of Aachen (1912-1930), head of the Caltech Guggenheim’s Aeronautical Labs at Pasadena (1930-1957). At both institutions he became extremely influential. His many former students made the so-called von Kármán’s Circle (including Lachmann, Wattendorf, Malina, Summerfield).
von Kármán was instrumental in founding AGARD (1951), NATO’s aeronatical research arm, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (1944), the Scientific Advisory Board to the Chiefs of Staff (1946), the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences, ICAS (1956), the International Academy of Astronautics (1960), and the von Karman Institute in Bruxelles.
His theoretical contributions include (but are not limited to): non elastic buckling, unsteady wakes due to flow past cylinder; stability of laminar flow, theory of turbulence, airfoil theory in steady and unsteady flow, boundary layer theory, transonic and supersonic aerodynamics.
von Kármán did make a number of contributions in other fields, such as theory of elasticity, vibrations, heat transfer, crystallography. A number of these papers can be found in his Collected Works. His name is linked to the following:
[This is just an example. There are other contributions bearing the name of von Kármán]
As an example of one particular instance when research into something leads to something else, von Kármán liked to recall the discovery of the vortex street. This happened when he was trying to find out whether a streamlined spar was any better than a cylindrical spar on biplane configurations (which was far from understood in the 1910s).
The circular cylinder was placed in the test section of the Göttingen wind tunnel, and to his amazement he found the vortex pattern that remains to his credit.
His lectures, both at Aachen and CalTech, were legendary. He would show up at irregular times, as he often jotted down ideas on the way to class, and was sometimes seen in untidy dress. His mathematical skills were spectacular, and he was able to districate himself from blind alleys and difficult passages “with such agility that the class held its breadth and then applauded”.
Born in Budapest in 1881 into an affluent German speaking family, he was trained as a mechanical engineer in Budapest, and made further graduate studies at Göttingen, where he earned his PhD working with Prof. Prandtl (1908). He died in Aachen on May 7, 1963, in the same city where he started his successful career.
While receiving the first prestigious National Medal of Science from president Kennedy at age 81, he politely shook off the proffered aid, saying:
Mr President, one does not need help going down, only going up.