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Theodore Von Krmn

        Science | Astronomers

Von Kármán, Theodore (1881-1963) was a Hungarian-born American physicist and engineer who made great contributions to the field of aerodynamics and rocket technology. He received the first National Medal of Science in 1963.

Von Karman was born in Budapest in 1881. In 1902, he graduated with an engineering degree from Royal Joseph University, then was appointed assistant professor of hydraulics at the university. In 1906, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences awarded him a two-year fellowship to study at the University of Gottingen.

In 1911, von Kármán discovered that constant-pressure fluctuations in air or fluid flowing past a cylinder resulted in an alternating double row of vortices in its wake. This phenomenon, now called a Kármán vortex street, applies to the wake behind a ship, the drag forces of race cars and airplanes, and the oscillations of tall, thin structures in moderate winds. It explained the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.

In 1913, he became professor of aeronautics and mechanics and director of the Aeronautical Institute at the Technical University of Aachen. He remained there until 1930, except when he worked as an aircraft designer for the Austro-Hungarian Air Force during World War I (1914-1918). During the war, he developed improvements in helicopter design, and afterward was a consultant for several years to various aircraft manufacturers in Germany, England, and Japan.

In 1930, he became director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, a position he held until 1949. He also established the Jet Propulsion Laboratory there and was its director from 1938 to 1945. He became an American citizen and helped the Allied cause during World War II (1939-1945), as a consultant to the U.S. Army Ballistic Research Laboratory. He also was a consultant to the U.S. Army Air Corps where he promoted the design and development of rockets. He helped establish the Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development, as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and contributed to the U.S. space program in the 1950's and 1960's.