Theodore von Karman

California Institute of Technology

May 11, 1881 - May 7, 1963

Membership Type:
Member (elected 1938)

Theodore von Karman was born in Budapest, became a member of the Academy in 1938, just two years after he obtained his U.S. citizenship. von Karman was noted for his work in fluid mechanics, a field he entered in earnest after 1912, when he became professor of aerodynamics and mechanics as well as director of the Aerodynamics Institute at Aachen, Germany. When World War I broke out in 1914, he returned to his native Hungary, where he eventually became head of research in the Austro-Hungarian Army Aviation Corps. During this time he designed an early version of the helicopter, which was intended to solve problems plaguing the observation balloons then in use.

In 1930 he moved permanently to the United States to head the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, and in 1938 he served on an NAS committee advising the U.S. Army Air Forces on the use of rocket power to assist airplanes in taking off. In 1944 he chaired the Army Air Force's newly-created Scientific Advisory Group, which studied the then-cutting edge technologies in rocketry, guided missiles, and jet propulsion. His important theory of boundary layers and his related studies of fluid flow at high subsonic, transsonic, and supersonic speeds were of great importance to post-World War II progress in all areas of flight. Personally, von Karman was known as a colorful, multilingual character who enjoyed entertaining a diverse circle of friends and acquaintances.

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