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Dr. Theodore von Kármán; Father of the supersonic age

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Jan 17th, 2016
2016
Jan 17

HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY

Dr. Theodore von Kármán; Father of the supersonic age

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By Allan R. Ellenberger

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Dr. Theodore von Kármán was a renowned aerodynamicist and founder of Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was sometimes called “Father of the supersonic age,” and the “patron saint of the Air Force.”

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He was born Szolloskislaki Kármán Todor, son of philosophy Prof. Maurice de Kármán who was knighted by Francis Joseph of Austria-Hungary in 1907 for reorganizing Hungarian secondary education, and his wife, Helene Konn, in Budapest, Hungary, on May 11, 1881.

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At the age of six, von Kármán was a prodigy who could multiply five-digit numbers in his head. His father was afraid his son might grow into a side-show freak, so he forbade him to study math. Nevertheless, his boyhood curiosity in science remained strong. He won the prestigious Eotvos Lorand Prize for the best student in mathematics and science in the entire country upon his graduation from the Minta Gymnasium in Budapest at the age of 16.

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He graduated in 1902 with high honors from the Palatine Joseph Polytechnic in Budapest with a degree in mechanical engineering. After a year of mandatory military service, he received his doctorate under the tutelage of the famous aerodynamicist, Ludwig Prandtl, at the University of Göttingen in 1908 and remained as an associate professor until 1912.

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Five years later, while at Göttingen, von Kármán brought forth one of the most important contributions to the science of fluid flow: an explanation of the eddies in the wake of a moving object. This eddy information, known technically as the Kármán Vortex, was closely connected with the collapse of the Tacoma Bridge, known as “Galloping Gertie,” in 1941. Von Kármán aided in the investigation of the bridge collapse and pointed out that the designer had failed to plan for the turbulent eddies produced by high winds hitting the bridge.

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In 1912, Germany recognized von Kármán’s talent by making him director of the newly created Aeronautical Institute of the University of Aachen. But World War I interrupted further work. Called back to Hungary, von Kármán was commissioned into the fledgling Austro-Hungarian Air Corps.

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His first challenge was to prevent balloons, used in artillery spotting, from being targets of the enemy. Von Kármán produced an entirely new device, a set of counter-rotating propellers attached to the observation basket and guided by three cables held on the ground. It was a captive helicopter—the world’s first helicopter to use counter-rotating props.

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After the war, von Kármán returned to Aachen, which he turned into one of Europe’s most renowned research centers. In 1924, he helped found the International Congress of Applied Mechanics, which attracted many distinguished scientists, including Dr. Frank J. Millikan. The two men began a lifelong association. In 1926, when the philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim provided funds for a new aeronautical laboratory at Cal Tech, Dr. Millikan invited von Kármán to advise on the design and to be the center’s first noted lecturer.

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For two years von Kármán traveled between Aachen and Cal Tech. In 1930, he accepted the directorship of the Guggenheim Laboratory and settled permanently in Pasadena. Turning down an offer from the Nazi Air Minister, Hermann Goring, to return to Germany, he became a United States citizen.

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Even a scientist gets time off to meet celebrities.

Here we see von Kármán with sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield.

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Von Kármán’s basic research spawned the concepts that led to space travel. He headed three dozen top-drawer scientists whose reports served for many years as the master plan for Air Force development. Von Kármán foresaw the intercontinental ballistic missile, enormous troop-transport planes and atomic warheads compact enough for use in rockets.

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With the onset of World War II, his pioneer rocketry brought him to the attention of the Pentagon. Gen. H.H. (Hap) Arnold, then chief of the Army Air Forces, thought rockets might be what he needed to help big bombers take off from short runways. In 1944, after recuperating from surgery for intestinal cancer in New York, von Kármán met with General Arnold on a runway at LaGuardia Airport. Arnold proposed that von Kármán lead the Scientific Advisory Group and become a consultant to the military. With Arnold’s support, von Kármán’s research resulted in Cal Tech’s respected Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

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One of Von Kármán’s accomplishments was the first practical helicopter. He improved gliders, airships, windmills, airplane hangars and military and commercial planes.

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Among his most important technical contributions was the theory of boundary layers, which makes it possible to calculate the friction of air on moving bodies, including the temperatures experienced by nose cones re-entering the atmosphere from space.

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Although he never designed a plane, von Kármán had been called “the elder statesman of aviation.” His work led to the pioneer construction of wind tunnels, which permit airplanes to “fly” on the ground. In a career that enveloped the history of aviation, he established a body of knowledge that paved the way for the design of supersonic jets, guided missiles, and rockets.

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After his retirement from Cal Tech in 1949, von Kármán turned his attention toward international cooperation in engineering research. Under the sponsorship of NATO, he formed in 1951 the Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD) and devoted the major part of his time to it until his death.

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Dr. Von Kármán was never married. He lived with his mother Helene (who died in 1941) and his sister Josephine, whom he called “Pipo;” she managed his California-style villa at 1501 S. Marengo Avenue in Pasadena until her death in 1951. Josephine was a lecturer in the French department of USC, author of a book on early Christian art and a collector of artworks.

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Throughout his life, Von Karman received many honorary degrees and medals, including the U.S. Medal for Merit (1946), the Franklin Gold Medal (1948), as well as most awards given in aeronautics and fluid mechanics. He was a commander of the French Legion of Honor, and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science.

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On January 15, 1963, von Kármán left Pasadena en route to Washington, where President John F. Kennedy conferred another award upon him: the first National Medal of Science as one of the creators of “this new and exciting age.”

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Von Kármán receiving the first National Medal of Science Award from

President John F. Kennedy

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The medal’s citation read:

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“For his leadership in the science and engineering basic to aeronautics; for his effective teaching and related contributions in many fields of mechanics, for his distinguished counsel to the Armed Services, and for his promoting international cooperation in science and engineering.”

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“I know of no one else who more completely represents all of the areas with which this award is appropriately concerned—science, engineering, and education,” the President said.

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Von Kármán replied: “What I can do in the rest of my life, I do not know. But (pointing to his head and smiling) as long as I am in good health here, I will try to be grateful to this country.”

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Afterward, von Kármán traveled to Aachen to visit friends at the Aeronautical Institute, of which he was the director from 1912 to 1929. While there, he suffered a heart attack and developed pneumonia. On May 5, 1963, Dr. Theodore von Kármán died, five days before his 82nd birthday. His body was returned to Los Angeles for interment at Hollywood Cemetery (Beth Olam Mausoleum, Section N-1, Crypt 142) next to his mother and sister.

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President Kennedy expressed deep regret over von Kármán’s death, saying “I know his friends and associates will mourn his loss and join me in paying tribute to a great scientist and humanitarian.”

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After his death, the Theodore von Kármán Award was endowed in 1960 by the Engineering Mechanics Division (now Engineering Mechanics Institute) of the Society, with gifts presented by the many friends and admirers of von Kármán.

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In 1992, the Postal Service honored von Kármán with a 29-cent commemorative stamp at the World Space Congress in Washington DC, Convention Center.

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During his long career, Dr. Theodore von Kármán wrote more than 200 books and scientific papers. He received honorary degrees from universities all over the world, at least 27 of them, extending from Berkeley to Istanbul and Haifa, and was decorated by no less seven governments.

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To visit Dr. Theodore von Kármán’s crypt, enter Beth Olam Mausoleum’s main entrance into the foyer. Go to the back corridor on your left and walk half-way down and von Kármán room will be on your left just past the next doorway.

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4 Responses

  1. Jack Says:

    Excellent account — as always! 🙂

  2. Anne Says:

    A most interesting and informative account about Dr. Theodore Von Karmano ‘s accomplishments. The man was a genius, and most deserving of honours for his numerous contributions as a scientist & humanitarian.

  3. Sarah Says:

    A tremendous mathematical genius. The great von Karman – this was a moving and informative account of his life’s works and, indeed, his life.

  4. howard koor Says:

    What an amazing website..

    Thank you.

    Howard Koor
    Brookline, MA

    https://thestoneholm.wordpress.com/

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