Photo of Dr. Theodore von Kármán

Theodore von Kármán was arguably one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. He was born on May 11, 1881 in Budapest, Hungary, and at an early age showed an aptitude for math and science. In 1908, he received a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Göttingen in Germany. In March of that year, he saw an airplane for the first time and was drawn to the physical principles of flying machines. Thus began his lifelong interest in aerodynamics.

Von Kármán worked in a variety of academic posts, was in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I, worked in private industry doing research, and built a world renowned reputation by lecturing extensively in various countries. He was invited to the United States by Robert A. Millikan to advise California Institute of Technology (Caltech) engineers on the design of a wind tunnel. After the wind tunnel was completed in 1928, von Kármán stayed on to join Caltech's newly established Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT). In 1930, he became Director of GALCIT. The department gained prominence when numerous West Coast aircraft companies used the wind tunnel for testing models, aided by Caltech engineers, scientists, and students.

Rocket experiments began at Caltech with graduate student Frank J. Malina in 1935. Encouraged by von Kármán, Malina and a small group of men eventually developed solid and liquid propellants. Their work attracted the attention of the US Army Air Corps, and earned a series of grants for research and testing of rocket motors. In 1942, von Kármán and five other scientists formed Aerojet Engineering Corporation, to accept contracts for building jet engines. In 1944, after reports that German scientists were developing rockets for military use, US Army Ordnance established a contract with Caltech to produce American counterpart weapons. The project became known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with von Kármán as JPL's first Director.

Von Kármán spent much of his time in Washington, DC, and abroad, visiting other scientists and advising the United States government on the future military applications of air power. In 1949, he resigned from Caltech and JPL to work at the Pentagon where he chaired the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board until 1954. The board charted the theory of post-war military systems in Where We Stand (which in 1945 predicted supersonic flight, ICBMs, nuclear warheads, and SAM missiles) and the 12-volume Toward New Horizons, introduced by von Kármán's "Science: The Key to Air Supremacy." In March 1952, he became the chair of the NATO Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD). In 1954, he received the Astronautics Engineer Achievement Award and in 1960, he received the Goddard Memorial Medal for liquid rocket work. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy presented him with the first National Medal of Science.

Four days before his 82nd birthday, von Kármán died of a heart attack in his sleep.

Publications

Aerodynamics, von Kármán, T., New York : McGraw-Hill, 1954.

Characteristics of the Ideal Solid Propellant Rocket Motor, von Kármán, T. and F. J. Malina, JPL Report No. 1-4, December 1, 1940.

Collected Works, von Kármán, T., London : Butterworths Scientific Publications, 1956.

Collected Works of Theodore Von Kármán, 1952-1963, von Kármán, T., Rhode-St-Genese, Belgium : Von Kármán Institute for Fluid Dynamics, 1975.

Comparative Study of Jet Propulsion Systems as Applied to Missiles and Transonic Aircraft, von Kármán, T., F. J. Malina, M. Summerfield, and H. S. Tsien, JPL Memorandum JPL-2, March 28, 1944. (Also released in revised form as JPL External Publication No. 118.)

Comparative Study of Jet Propulsion Systems as Applied to Missiles and Transonic Aircraft, von Kármán, T., JPL External Publication No. 118.

Correlation Coefficients for Velocity Measurements in Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa, prepared under direction of Professor T. von Kármán, 1937.

Description of the Experiment Station of the Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project, von Kármán, T. and F. J. Malina, JPL Report 1-6, February 26, 1941.

A Discussion of the Modification of Standard Bombs to Improve Skip Bombing Technique, von Kármán, T., L. G. Dunn, and J. Charyk, JPL Memorandum No. 2-1, April 7, 1944.

Facilities and Equipment of the Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project, von Kármán, T. and F. J. Malina, JPL Progress Report No. 1-4, May 28, 1943.

From Low-Speed Aerodynamics to Astronautics, von Kármán, T. Coordinating Editor S. I. Pai, New York : Pergamon Press, [distributed by] Macmillan, 1963. Series title: International Series of Monographs in Aeronautics and Astronautics.

International Congress in the Aeronautical Sciences 1958, Madrid, Proceedings, Editorial Committee Chairman, T. von Kármán, et al., New York : Symposium Publications Division, Pergamon Press, 1959. Series title: International Series on Aeronautical Sciences and Space Flight. Division IX, Symposia, Advances in Aeronautical Sciences ; v. 1-2.

International Congress in the Aeronautical Sciences, 12-16 September 1960, Zurich, Switzerland, Proceedings, Editorial Committee Chairman, T. von Kármán, et al. New York : Symposium Publications Division, Pergamon Press, c1962. Series title: Advances in Aeronautical Sciences ; v. 3-4, International Series in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Division IX, Symposia ; v. 7-8, International Series of Monographs in Aeronautics and Astronautics ; v. 7-8.

Mathematical Methods in Engineering : An Introduction to the Mathematical Treatment of Engineering Problems, von Kármán, T. and M. A. Biot, 1st ed., New York, London : McGraw-Hill, 1940.

Mechanical Similitude and Turbulence, von Kármán, T., Washington D.C. : National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1931. Series title: Technical Memorandums, No. 611.

Memorandum on the Design, Construction and Operation of a Towing Channel for Under-Water Jet Propulsion Research, von Kármán, T. and F. J. Malina, JPL Miscellaneous No. 2, February 20, 1943.

The Possibilities of Long-Range Rocket Projectiles, and a Review and Preliminary Analysis of Long-Range Rocket Projectiles, von Kármán, T., H. E. Tsien, and F. J. Molina, Memorandum JPL-1, November 20, 1943. (Also released as JPL External Publication No. 117.)

The Propagation of Plastic Deformation in Solids, von Kármán, T. and P. E. Duwez, JPL External Publication No. 83. (Published in Journal of Applied Physics, Vol. 21, 1950.)

Similarity of Turbulent Flow, von Kármán, T., 1935.

A Study of the Possibility of Using the Ejector Action of the Jet as a Source of Power for Driving Propellant Pumps, von Kármán, T., T. S. Tsien, and R. B. Canright, JPL Progress Report No. 1-7, July 27, 1943.

Theory of Turbulence, von Kármán, T., [1936-]

The Wind and Beyond: Theodore von Kármán, Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space, von Kármán, T. with L.Edson. [1st ed.] Boston : Little, Brown, 1967.

Other Writings about von Kármán

Advances in Aeronautical Science, New York : Macmillan, 1959-1962. Series title: International Series of Monographs in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Division IX: Symposia v. 7-8, International Series on Aeronautical Sciences and Space Flight. Division IX, Symposia ; v. 7-8.

Bringing Aerodynamics to America, Hanle, P. A. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c1982.

Proceedings of an aerospace scientific symposium of distinguished lecturers in honor of Dr. Theodore von Kármán on his 80th anniversary, May 11, 1961, sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, New York : Institute of the Aerospace Sciences, c1962.

Congress of the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences 1962, Stockholm, Sweden, Proceedings, Theodore von Kármán, Honorary President; Maurice Roy, Chairman, Executive Commmittee. Washington, D.C.: Spartan Books, 1964.

Fluid Mechanics and Statistical Methods in Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, Bicentennial Conference, H. L. Dryden, et al, Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1941.

Notes on Twelve Lectures : Given in the Department of Physics, Columbia University, by Theodore Von Kármán on Aerothermodynamics, prepared by William Perl. New York: Columbia University, 1947.

Theodore von Kármán Memorial Seminar, Proceedings, held in Los Angeles 12 May 1965, edited by Shirley Thomas. Series title: AAS science and technology series ; v. 7.

The Universal Man : Theodore von Kármán's Life in Aeronautics, Gorn, M. H., Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. Series Title: Smithsonian History of Aviation Series.

Photo Gallery

von Karman signing a document on the wing of a fighter plane with three servicemen watching.
The first successful test of restricted burning solid propellant JATOs in the United States happened on August 12, 1941, at March Field, CA. From left to right are: Clark Millikan, later head of GALACIT; Martin Summerfield, who participated in early rocket research at JPL; Theodore von Kármán; Frank Malina; and Captain Homer Boushey, Army Air Corps test pilot.
A 1950 photo of von Kármán teaching in a classroom.
A 1950 photo of von Kármán teaching class.
photo of von Kármán commemorative US Stamp
Theodore von Kármán once said, "The scientist describes what is; the engineer creates what never was." While he was living, von Kármán was adamant that he be called an engineer; not a scientist. Therefore it is ironic that this commemorative US Stamp labels him a scientist.
photo of Former JPL Directors from left to right: William H. Pickering, Theodore von Kármán and Frank J. Malina.
Former JPL Directors from left to right: William H. Pickering, Theodore von Kármán and Frank J. Malina.