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Theodore von Kármán

Theodore von Kármán (May 11, 1881 - May 6, 1963) was an engineer and physicist who was active primarily in the fields of aeronautics during the seminal era in the 1940s and 1950s. He is personally responsible for many key advances in aerodynamics, notably his work on supersonic and hypersonic airflow characterization.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary as Karman Todor, studied engineering at the city's Royal Technical University[?], graduating in 1902, then received his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in 1908. He taught at Göttingen for four years, but became fascinated by flight after seeing one, and in 1912 took a job as director of the Aeronautical Institute at the University of Aachen[?]. He stayed there until 1930 (with a leave serving in the Austro-Hungarian army 1915-1918, where he designed an early helicopter).

Apprehensive about developments in Europe, in 1930 he accepted the directorship of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory[?] at the California Institute of Technology and emigrated to the United States. In 1936, with Frank Malina[?] he founded a company Aerojet[?] to manufacture JATO rocket motors.

In 1944 he helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (now a part of NASA, and became the first chairmain of the Scientific Advisory Group[?] in 1946, which studied aeronautical technologies for the Army Air Force[?]. 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[?] in Brussels.

Kármán's fame was in the use of mathematical tools to study fluid flow, 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.

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 appears in at least the following concepts:


  • Aerodynamics - Selected Topics in the Light of their Historical Development, (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1954).
  • Collected Works, (4 Volumes), Von Karman Institute, Rhode St. Genese, 1975 (limited edition book); also Butterworth Scientific Publ, London 1956. (Many papers from vols. 1 and 2 are in German.)
  • From Low Speed Aerodynamics to Astronautics, (Pergamon Press, London, 1961).
  • (with L. Edson) The Wind and Beyond - Theodore von Kármán Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space (Little Brown, 1967).


  • S. Goldstein, "Theodore von Kármán, 1881-1963", Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London 12 (1966), 335-365.
  • 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", Science 222 (4630) (1983), 1300-1304.
  • 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.
  • W. R. Sears, "Some recollections of Theodore von Kármán", J. Soc. Indust. Appl. Math. 13 (1965), 175-183.
  • W. R. Sears, "Von Kármán: fluid dynamics and other things", Physics today 39 (1986), 34-39.
  • 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.

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