Theodore Von Karman
National Medal of Science
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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BirthMay 11, 1881
Country of BirthAustria-Hungary
Key ContributionsAerodynamics And Swept Back Wings On Aircraft
Awarded byJohn Fitzgerald Kennedy
EducationRoyal Joseph Technical University
University of Gottingen
Areas of ImpactTransportation
AffiliationsCalifornia Institute of Technology
Other PrizesNational Inventors Hall of Fame
In 1908 – five years after the Wright brothers’ first flight – aviator Henri Farman attempted a similar feat, unknowingly inspiring a lifetime of innovation for a young engineer in the crowd.
Theodore Von Karman had found his destiny, plainly summarized by a quote he’d utter years later,“Scientists discover the world that exists; Engineers create the world that never was.”
In his early research, Von Karman observed rotating currents of air around moving objects. Dubbed the “Karman vortex street,” these motions spawned research on how aircraft wing design could mitigate turbulence.
Decades later, Karman – an expert in supersonic flight – passed his knowledge onto the next generation, helping students establish the facility that later became NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Even at age 81, Von Karman remained unstoppable. While accepting the first National Medal of Science in 1962, he politely declined President John Kennedy’s aid.
“Mr President,” he said. “one does not need help going down, only going up.”