von Karman, Theodore
ScientistEnshrined 1983 1881-1963
The U.S. Army hired von Karman for a project, during which he and his co-workers discovered some new principles of airplane design. Since his contract did not call for these discoveries, the Army refused to pay his salary. However, he reminded them of Christopher Columbus, who was commissioned by Queen Isabella to find a new seaway to the Indies. Instead he discovered America, and he was put in jail. The Army “brass” thought this over and decided to pay him.
- Discovered air drag after seeing an airplane in Paris in 1908.
- During World War I he developed a tethered observation helicopter.
- His studies on air turbulence and supersonic drag were major achievements. His investigations led to the development of Jato rockets to assist heavy aircraft take off and to the first U.S. rocket-powered aircraft in 1941.
- Founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the Aerojet Engineering Company to develop rocket propulsion systems and missiles.
- After World War II he chaired a Nuclear Weapons Panel and its report led to the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile.
Hungarian-born Theodore von Kármán’s lifelong fascination with aviation began in 1908 when he witnessed a flight by Henri Farman near Paris. Soon after returning to the University of Gottingen, Germany, he became involved in research on Count von Zepplin’s marvelous new airships. Von Karman’s discovery of a new source of aeronautical drag, which gave great importance to streamlining, garnered him worldwide fame.
In 1913, he accepted the Chair of Aeronautics at the Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany. There, he not only improved its laboratories and wind tunnel but he and his staff also developed mathematical models for wings that led to the perfection of the Junkers cantilevered wing monoplane, an important advance in aviation.
With the outbreak of World War I von Karman reported for duty with the Austro-Hungarian Army and served as a researcher. He soon began pioneering work to develop a captive helicopter to replace the conventional observation balloon. Its performance was so promising that he added a barrel-like compartment atop for the pilot and observer. However, the war ended before its potential could be realized. Soon after the war, von Kármán became a consultant to the Junkers Aircraft company and helped it win a basic patent on its cantilevered wing design. He also became a consultant to Zeppelin on the Los Angeles model that it was building for the U.S. Navy.
In 1926, von Karman visited the California Institute of Technology and helped plan its new Daniel Guggenheim Graduate School of Aeronautics and its Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory. Accompanied by his sister, Pipo, he also visited a number of universities and lectures on the aeronautical sciences. The high point of his visit was a meeting with Orville Wright. The rise of Nazism and its accompanying anti-Semitic fanaticism in Germany convinced von Kármán to accept a Cal Tech job offer. Early in 1930 he not only became director of its Guggenheim Laboratory but also of the Guggenheim Airship Institute in Akron. When aviation pioneer Jack Northrop used the Guggenheim Laboratory to make wind tunnel tests on his revolutionary “Alpha” transport, von Kármán and his staff proved that by adding a fairing between the wing and fuselage one could elimintate severe buffeting.
Wind tunnel studies of the new Douglas DC-1 airliner at the Guggenheim Laboratory led to greater streamlining and an increase in its top speed of 30 miles per hour. The first DC-1 soon set a new transcontinental speed record. The DC-l led the way to the larger, more powerful DC-3, which underwent hundreds of Cal Tech wind tunnel tests. The DC-3 went on to dominate world, commercial and military air transportation until the 1950’s.
At an international meeting in Rome, von Kármán first presented his theory on supersonic air drag. It was a major contribution for great advancements in air speeds. Fortunately, in 1936, von Karman first met General Henry “Hap” Arnold, then commander of March Field and struck up a friendship that would have a great impact on military aviation. Soon after, Arnold, newly appointed chief of staff of the Army Air Corps, organized a committee to conduct Air Corps research. Appointed a member, von Kármán enthusiastically took up Arnold’s request to develop rockets to assist new type heavily-laden bombers takeoff.
With the outbreak of World War II, the importance of “Jato” became paramount. By mid-1941, von Kármán had equipped a small plane with six “Jato” units, and when they ignited with a roar, they catapulted the taxiing plane into the air. It was America’s first “Jato” takeoff! Soon after comes another historic event when a plane without propellers was thrust into the air by 12 “Jato” units, becoming America’s first rocket-powered airplane flight.
In order to make major advances in military aviation von Kármán envisioned the need for a new 500 mile per hour wind tunnel. “Hap” Arnold fulfilled that need by developing a 20-foot diameter tunnel at Wright Field, the first of its kind. During these years, von Karman served as a consultant to Lockheed and helped solve perplexing problems on its P-38 “Lightning” fighter. He also proposed a concept for a supersonic aircraft to the Air Force which became the basis for the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier.
Meanwhile the success of “Jato” rockets led von Kármán and his associates to form Aerojet Engineering Company in 1942 to mass produce them, and he was elected president of the company. Its other wartime products included the “Holy Moses” air-launched rocket. In 1942, Jack Northrop approached von Kármán after he learned about “Jato.” Northrop wanted to build a rocket-powered flying wing to intercept German bombers that were attacking England. As a result of von Kármán’s encouragement, the “Rocket-Wing” became one of the Army Air Force’s most guarded secrets. In 1944, it was towed aloft and released at an altitude of 8,000 feet. When the rocket motor sprung to life, America’s first rocket-powered airplane proved itself an unqualified success.
In late 1943, von Kármán received a contract from the Army Ordnance Department for developing the “Private”, a long-range surface-to-surface missile. This achievement was followed by the “Corporal” the first tactical long-range rocket weapon used by U.S. armed forces, and by the “WAC Corporal” high altitude sounding rocket. Later the “WAC Corporal” was combined with a V-2 rocket and used to reach a height of 244 miles. It was the first American rocket to reach outer space.
With the end of World War II in sight, “Hap” Arnold met secretly with von Kármán and asked him to gather together a group of scientists to work out a blueprint for Air Force research for the coming decades. As a result, von Kármán formed the Army Air Forces Scientific Advisory Group and served as its first chairman. Near the end of the war Arnold sent von Kármán and his group of scientists to Europe to survey German research and development progress. In Germany they uncovered a secret aeronautical research center and discovered data on swept-back wings tested at near the speed of sound. After sifting through millions of documents and interviewing hundreds of German scientists, von Kármán’s group issued a secret report to “Hap” Arnold, which claimed that technology already existed to build intercontinental ballistic missiles. In recognition of this outstanding service, von Kármán received the Army Air Force’s Meritorious Civilian Service emblem.
After visiting Europe and Japan again after the end of the war, von Kármán’s group completed two secret reports titled “Toward New Horizons,” and “Science: The Key to Air Supremacy.” They would serve as the major impetus for basic scientific research in the United States Air Force for the decade ahead. This also marked the beginning of the Air Force having a chief scientist on the air staff, and once again von Karman’s contributions earned recognition when General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz pinned the United States’ highest civilian award, the Medal for Merit, on him.
In 1953 von Kármán established a nuclear weapons panel and its report that hydrogen bombs could be used in missile warheads led to the successful development of the “Atlas” intercontinental ballistic missile in 1959.
Dr. von Kármán retired from full-time academic work in 1959 and was named professor emeritus at Cal Tech.
Von Kármán received many honors after his retirement. One came with the dedication of the von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility at the Arnold Engineering Center where Dr. Dryden, General Schriever and others unveiled a portrait of him and his beloved sister “Pipo.”
Named a director of the International Academy of Astronautics, he received the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Gold Medal for his work in liquid propellant rockets. Von Kármán also became the first recipient of the United States National Medal of Science, which President Kennedy presented to him.
Dr. Theodore von Kármán died on May 7th, 1963.
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