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The Wind and Beyond: Theodore von Karman, Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space

by Theodore von Karman with Lee Edson

 Brilliant aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman set out to write his autobiography late in life, with the help of science journalist Lee Edson. When von Karman died in 1963 at age 81, the manuscript was only three-quarters completed. Fortunately, Edson persevered and the book was published four years later.

Since the story is told in the first person, the reader gains a sense of intimacy with von Karman himself. Given his old-world charm, befitting a native of late-19th-century Budapest, his engaging style resonates from its opening paragraph.

Inklings of von Karman’s genius were apparent in childhood, when as a boy he correctly calculated six-digit multiplication problems within seconds. He went on to study at the University of Göttingen under Ludwig Prandtl, the doyen of fluid mechanics. In March 1908, after von Karman received his doctorate, he witnessed a flimsy Voisin aircraft taking off at dawn—a sight that inspired him to focus his talents in the emerging field of aviation.

As director of the Aerodynamics Institute at the Technical University at Aachen, von Karman published a groundbreaking paper on the law of turbulence. He was lured to the California Institute of Technology in 1930, sufficiently in advance of Nazism’s ascendance to escape the horrors that befell many in Europe. At Caltech he headed the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, which operated a state-of-the-art wind tunnel.

During World War II, von Karman and his colleagues fostered the still-new science of rocketry, spurring the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His insights and expertise made him one of the fathers of the American missile and space programs.

In 1944 Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, asked von Karman to prepare a blueprint for the service’s future. With his customary energy and drive, the scientist submitted a comprehensive report the next year,“Toward New Horizons,”which laid out a plan for supersonic flight, missiles, precision munitions, satellites and much more that ensured U.S. air superiority for more than the next half-century. After the war, he remained in demand at leading universities around the world, receiving 29 honorary doctorates. His many awards included the first National Medal of Science, presented at the White House.

Every page of this superb classic is infused with von Karman’s humanity. As his narrative makes clear, he was not simply a clever technician but a man of character whose vision advanced the aerospace sciences and fostered international cooperation. Fittingly, this autobiography ends with a hopeful von Karman quote that “science will overwhelmingly use its power only for good.”


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.