Theodore von Kármán and Lee Edson

von Karman headshot
Born in Budapest, Hungary, of Jewish parents, Theodore von Kármán (1881-1963) was recognized as a mathematical prodigy at the age of 6. He won the prestigious Eötvös Prize for best student in mathematics and science in all of Hungary when he graduated from the Minta Gymnasium in Budapest at the age of 16. He graduated from the Palatine Joseph Polytechnic in Budapest in 1902 in mechanical engineering with high honors. After a year of mandatory military service, he received his doctorate under the famous aerodynamicist, Ludwig Prandtl, at the University of Göttingen in 1908 where he remained as an associate professor until 1912, when he became director of the University of Aachen’s newly created Aeronautical Institute.

After spending World War I in the Austro-Hungarian fledgling air corps, where he developed the first ever helicopter, tethered to the ground, that was able to maintain hovering flight, von Kármán returned to Aachen where he led what became one of Europe’s major aerodynamics research centers. After philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim funded a new aeronautical laboratory at Cal Tech in 1926, Robert Millikan offered von Kármán its directorship, which von Kármán accepted in 1930 in part due to the rise of Nazism and antisemitism in Germany. His Cal Tech laboratory, the most prominent in the world of aeronautical sciences, became the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

By the end of his scientific career during which he made major contributions to aviation and space technology, aerodynamics, and improved aircraft performance, von Kármán had published more than 200 papers, advanced scientific collaboration from world leading scientists, developed many unique theories of aeronautical and space science, and played an important role in the creation of supersonic aircraft and ballistic missiles. In 1963, President Kennedy awarded von Kármán the first National Medal of Science.

Lee Edson headshot
Born in New York City, Lee Edson (1918-2008) received his B.S. degree in physics and English from the City College of New York and did graduate work in physics at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute before becoming a science writer. His articles have appeared in Harper’s, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest and the New York Times Magazine and he is the author of several books.

Edson first met Theodore von Kármán in 1956 when he interviewed him for an article the Saturday Evening Post published in 1957. They became friends and during a visit at his Pasadena home, von Kármán asked Edson to help him write his
autobiography — von Kármán later said “Lee writes and I read” — which Edson completed in 1967, four years after von Kármán’s death.

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