May 11, 1881, is the birthdate of Theodore von Kármán, the Budapest-born engineer whose ability to apply his theoretical genius to practical tasks made him the father of modern aerodynamics research, whose efforts were essential in the development of jet propulsion for missiles and airplanes.
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He was born Todor Kármán, with his father Mor (or Maurice) having changed the surname from Kleinmann. Mor was a professor of education in Budapest who was made a member of the hereditary nobility – hence the particle “von” in the family name – by the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, in appreciation of his work as an educator. Mor Kármán had created the Minta Gymnasium in Budapest, to serve as a model for the country’s secular high schools. Some of Minta’s early students included Todor himself, as well as such other future scientific luminaries as Edward Teller and Leó Szilárd.
Todor’s mother was the former Helene Konn, from a wealthy family of landed Jewish gentry Her father was a descendant of the Maharal, the great 16th-century Prague rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.
Kármán studied mechanical engineering at the Royal Joseph Technical University, graduating in 1902. He followed that in 1908 with a doctorate from the University of Göttingen, where he studied with the period’s leading expert on fluid dynamics, Ludwig Prandtl.
Quantifying wind eddies
The science of fluid dynamics includes the study of the interaction of air and moving objects. Kármán’s first great discovery had to do with quantifying the behavior of wind eddies when they come in contact with moving objects. That understanding was not only crucial to the design of projectiles: it also came in handy in 1941, when Kármán joined a committee of experts studying the dramatic collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, in Washington State, when it was buffeted by heavy winds.
Between 1912 and 1930, Kármán led the institute of aeronautics at RWTH Aachen, a German technical institute. (He would take a brief break during World War I, when he headed research for the Austro-Hungarian air corps and designed a hybrid of a hot-air balloon and primitive helicopter.) It was during this period that he showed his acumen for bringing together scholars from different countries, organizing international congresses – first in 1922 – in aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, and, in 1924, applied mechanics. It was at an applied mechanics conference in Delft that Kármán first met Robert Millikan, the president of the California Institute of Technology, who several years later was able to lure Kármán to Pasadena to head a new aeronautics institute funded by the Guggenheim Fund.
Göring demonstrates regret
Already in 1930, Kármán felt that his being Jewish had held back his promotion within the German university system. And so, after several years of splitting his time between Aachen and Caltech, he decided to make the move with his mother and sister to California. Later, after the rise of the Nazis, Hermann Göring invited Kármán the Jew to return to Germany, but he declined.
In addition to the cutting-edge research in aerodynamics he oversaw at Caltech, Kármán cofounded Aerojet General in 1936, a company producing jet-assisted takeoff rocket engines. His research also led to the development of solid-fuel rocket engines, which are crucial to the operation of ballistic missiles.
Also in 1936, he helped a bunch of students build a test facility for rockets in a gully, which would, by 1944, evolve into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by Caltech for NASA.
Meanwhile, during World War II Kármán became a trusted adviser to General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the commander of the Army Air Force. Later he was the first head of the USAF’s Scientific Advisory Group, which mapped out the master plan of the force during the Cold War era.
Theodor von Kármán became a cherished figure both in the United States and internationally, not only for his scientific acumen but also for his diplomatic skills and humor. From the mid-1950s on, he spent much of his time in Paris, from where he took a leading role in NATO’s Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development, among other cooperative scientific bodies.
In February 1963, he became the first recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science. Three months later, on May 6, 1963, while visiting Aachen and shortly after receiving the first National Medal of Science from President John F. Kennedy, Kármán died of a heart attack, at age 81.