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Theodore von Kármán Papers

Identifier: 10143-MS

Scope and Content of Collection

The collection includes more than 145,000 pages of letters, scientific manuscripts, reports, unpublished speeches, lecture notes, family papers, medals, and photographs.


  • 1871-1963
  • Majority of material found within 1920-1963



The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access. The original portion of the Theodore von Kármán papers are also available to researchers in microfiche format. The printed finding aid to the original von Kármán collection (175 boxes) and its microfiche edition is titled The Theodore von Kármán Collection at the California Institute of Technology (ed. J.R. Goodstein and C. Kopp, 1981). It may be obtained through the Caltech Archives or through various libraries who obtained copies of the microfiche and guide. The 1994 supplement has not been filmed.

Publication Rights

Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

Biographical / Historical


1881 May 11
Theodore von Kármán born in Budapest (Hungary), son of Maurice (Mór) Kármán and Helene Kármán (née Kohn)
von Kármán enters The Royal Joseph Technical University, Budapest
receives degree in mechanical engineering from The Royal Joseph
joins the firm of Ganz and Company in Budapest as a consulting engineer; accepts position as assistant professor of hydraulics at The Royal Joseph
wins a two-year fellowship to Göttingen; attends lectures by David Hilbert, Felix Klein, and Ludwig Prandtl
sees his first airplane flights near Paris
writes dissertation on the buckling of columns and receives doctor's degree from the University of Göttingen
receives appointment as privatdocent at Göttingen
studies the stability of vortex patterns that form behind stationary bodies in flowing fluids ("Kármán vortex street")
von Kármán turns to a problem in solid state physics; he and Max Born analyze the lattice dynamics of a crystal and deduce the spectrum of frequencies in a solid. Next, they apply Einstein's 1907 paper on the heat capacity of solids to their model of crystalline lattice vibrations
moves to Aachen as professor of mechanics and aeronautics at the Technische Hochschule and director of the Aerodynamics Institute
military service in the Austro-Hungarian Army; becomes head of the experimental division of the Aviation Corps; collaborates with Wilhelm Zurovec on design of first stable hovering captive helicopter
1915 Oct 15
father dies in Budapest
returns to Technische Hochschule, Aachen
organizes with Tullio Levi-Civita a scientific conference in Innsbruck devoted to aerodynamics and hydrodynamics
lectures on the stability of laminar flow and turbulence at the First International Congress on Applied Mechanics at Delft; General Aerodynamic Theory, 2 vols. (with J. M. Burgers)
1926 Sept 24
makes his first visit to the United States under the auspices of the Daniel Guggenheim Fund; serves as consultant on the design of new aeronautics laboratory and wind tunnel at Caltech
visits Japan; advisor to Kawanishi airplane company; designs country's first industrial wind tunnel
two more visits to the United States
von Kármán returns to the problem of turbulence; he succeeds in deriving a logarithmic formula for turbulent skin friction, announces results at Göttingen and at Third International Congress of Applied Mechanics at Stockholm
1930 Oct 1
appointment as professor of aeronautics, director of the Daniel Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), and director of the Daniel Guggenheim Airstrip Institute at Akron, Ohio
founding member, Institute of Aeronautical Sciences
founding member, hydraulic machinery laboratory for research on centrifugal pumps; consultant, Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles
presents fundamental paper analyzing from a variety of viewpoints the problem of resistance at subsonic and supersonic speeds, Fifth Volta Congress, Rome
acquires USA citizenship; GALCIT Rocket Research Project begins
visits Russia, China, and Japan; Wilbur Wright Lecture, Royal Aeronautical Society
election to National Academy of Sciences; publishes definitive paper (with L. Howarth) on statistical theory of isotropic turbulence
Joseph Willard Gibbs lecturer ("The Engineer Grapples with Nonlinear Problems"), American Mathematical Society, Columbus, Ohio
1939 Apr 18
von Kármán proposes a Jet Propulsion Experimental Station in the Arroyo Seco
July 1
Special Committee of the National Academy of Sciences for Air Corps research initiates jet propulsion research program (GALCIT Project, No. 1) under von Kármán's direction; aerodynamic consultant, Smith-Putnam Wind Turbine
consultant, U.S. Army Air Corps
Mathematical Methods in Engineering (with M.A. Biot)
aerodynamic consultant, Tacoma Narrows Bridge Consulting Board
1941 May 11
Theodore von Kármán Anniversary Volume, in honor of Theodore's 60th birthday
1941 June
mother dies in Pasadena
joins five colleagues in forming the Aerojet Engineering Corporation
1944 Oct 23
appointment as expert consultant to General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces; organizes and directs U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Group (SAG)
1944 Nov 1
Jet Propulsion Laboratory formally created; von Kármán prepares to turn leadership of the Laboratory over to JPL Executive Board
leads other SAG members on inspection tour of European aeronautics centers
Where We Stand, von Kármán's post-tour report to AAF Scientific Advisory Group on technical developments in air warfare during World War II; also, writes Science, The Key to Air Supremacy, the introductory volume of the Group's long-range report, "Toward New Horizons"
receives the U.S. Medal for Merit
chairman, Scientific Advisory Board, U.S. Air Force
foreign member, The Royal Society
professor emeritus, California Institute of Technology
organizes the NATO Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD)
chairman, AGARD
1951 July 2
sister dies in Pasadena
Aerodynamics: Selected Topics in the Light of Their Historical Development, the 1953 Messenger Lectures, Cornell University
chairman emeritus, Scientific Advisory Board, USAF
Selected Papers on Engineering Mechanics, an anniversary volume prepared by Aachen colleagues in honor of Theodore's 70th birthday
1961 May 11
symposium, organized by the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences, New York, in honor of Theodore's 80th birthday; proceedings are published in 1962
1963 Feb 8
recipient of the first U.S. National Medal of Science
1963 May 7
dies in Aachen


93 linear feet (190 boxes)

Language of Materials




This record group documents the career of Theodore von Kármán, Hungarian-born aerodynamicist, science advisor, and first director of the Daniel Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. It consists primarily of correspondence, speeches, lectures and lecture notes, scientific manuscripts, calculations, reports, photos and technical slides, autobiographical sketches, and school notebooks.

Organization of Collection

The Theodore von Kármán collection is organized into the following series: I. Personal Correspondence (Box 1 Folder 1 through Box 33 Folder 34); II. Correspondence and Documents: Professional Organization and Meetings (Box 34 Folder 1 through Box 55 Folder 7); III. Correspondence and Documents: Companies and Industry (Box 55 Folder 8 through Box 69 Folder 27); IV. Correspondence and Documents: Educational Institutions (Box 70 Folder 1 through Box 78 Folder 18); V. General Correspondence (Box 78 Folder 19 through Box 81 Folder 13); VI. United States Government Files (Box 81 Folder 14 through Box 96 Folder 4); VII. Technical Files (Box 96 Folder 5 through Box 114 Folder 12); VIII. Publication Correspondence (Box 115 Folder 1 through Box 116 Folder 14); IX. Manuscripts (Box 117 Folder 1 through Box 133 Folder 4); X. Biographical and Personal Material (Box 133 Folder 5 through Box 174); Supplementary Material (Box 175 through Box 189).

In the present finding aid, the folder index and the selective correspondent index complement each other. The folder index provides a complete listing of the contents of the von Kármán collection. It is arranged in filing order and gives the identification number, title, and inclusive dates for each folder in the collection. It also provides an organizational description of the collection.

The alphabetically arranged correspondent index (for folders 1.1 through 116.8) shows the correspondent's name and the folder numbers where such correspondence may be found. The index, which includes individuals only, makes no distinction between incoming and outgoing correspondence.

Documentation of von Kármán's involvement in education, national affairs, scientific organizations, and industrial firms is centered in Sections II through VIII of the collection and includes material from such prominent scientific and public figures as G. I. Taylor, George Gamow, Edward Teller, John von Neumann, Curtis LeMay, Enrico Fermi, Richard Courant, Vannevar Bush, and Stuart Symington. To see every item of correspondence with an individual, e.g., the English mathematician G. I. Taylor, each folder listed would have to be consulted. However, to find only that Taylor correspondence relating to a particular topic or subject area, compare the correspondent index entries with those in the folder index.

The index covers von Kármán's professional career. The remaining, unindexed folders are primarily personal and family material. Theodore had three brothers and a sister. There is considerable correspondence with each family member, including some correspondence between his mother and father, dating back to the 1880s. Transcriptions and English translations exist for some of this material. Theodore and Josephine, his sister, were very close. Her letters, in particular, are a rich source of information about Theodore's personal life. Of interest also in this section is the biographical material relating to his father, Maurice (Mór), who was a prominent Hungarian educator.

Von Kármán's papers encompass a broad spectrum of European and American intellectual, social, and political history. There is a good deal of information, for example, on international cooperation in science, on science and scientists in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, on technical matters, including airships, windmills and jet propellants, on the work of the NATO Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development, and the founding and development of the Institute for Applied Mathematics at Brown University, to name but some of the topics available for study in the collection.

Section II of the collection is a good starting point for investigating international scientific cooperation. The files of the International Congress for Applied Mechanics, the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, and the Innsbruck Conference on Hydro- and Aerodynamics form one of the most interesting sections of the organizational correspondence, and should be used in conjunction with one another. The political chaos in Europe between the two World Wars is documented in many of the letters in Section I--e.g., Richard Courant's letter of November 12, 1933 to von Kármán describing conditions in Germany in 1933, is typical of the many letters received by von Kármán from prominent European scientists in the 1930s. The government files in Section VI of the collection focus on von Kármán's long and fruitful association with the military, particularly the Air Force. Section VII contains material relating to von Kármán's general interest in problems of lighter-than-air craft and his role as aerodynamics advisor in the Smith-Putnam wind turbine project. The windmill built in 1941 at Grandpa's Knob near Montpellier, Vermont, survives as an interesting case study in the history of technology. Students of American economic history will find his correspondence in the National Research Council files dealing with the problem of jet propellants and related material concerning the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, particularly useful.

Theodore von Kármán's published writings include five books and approximately 200 papers and articles which appeared between 1902 and 1963, now part of the five-volume Collected Works of Theodore von Kármán (London, 1956, vols. 1-4; Rhode-St-Genèse, 1975, vol. 5). A popular, semi-autobiographical account of his life is The Wind and Beyond: Theodore von Kármán, Pioneer... in Space by von Kármán with Lee Edson (New York, 1967); Hugh L. Dryden's, "Theodore von Kármán, May 11, 1881-May 7, 1963," National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, xxxviii (New York, 1965), pp. 345-384, considers in some detail his scientific work. Several oral histories of von Kármán also exist. The Sources for History of Quantum Physics interview with von Kármán deals with his scientific education and early work; Columbia University's Oral History Research Office von Kármán interview deals primarily with his World War II activities, and the formation of the Scientific Advisory Board.

The 1994 supplement ranges in date from 1909 to 1963, and includes manuscript and print material, as well as a large amount of memorabilia in the form of medals, degrees, citations, artwork, and photographs. The manuscript material includes files on the Josephine de Kármán memorial trust and foundation, as well as other family material. Several manuscripts and technical reports are present, including von Kármán's 1909 Göttingen dissertation. A small amount of correspondence, dating mostly from the late 1950s and early 1960s, includes letters to and from von Kármán's student and colleague, H. S. Tsien. Of special interest are the two bound volumes of congratulatory letters sent to von Kármán on his 75th birthday from a multitude of students and colleagues, including among many others Arthur H. Compton, Louis de Broglie, I. I. Rabi, Emilio Segrè, S. Timoshenko, and H. S. Tsien. There are also a number of original reprints of writings by von Kármán. These supplement those in boxes 123 and 124 of the original collection.

Notable among the memorabilia are the photographs and the many cartoons and sketches of von Kármán. The oil portrait of von Kármán's father, Maurice, by an unknown artist, is of excellent quality.

With the exception of the portrait of Maurice Kármán, all of the new material has been added to the existing collection in 13 boxes, numbered 176 through 188.

In July 1999 materials in the von Kármán supplement were slightly rearranged. A separate collection of medals and awards was created to hold the many honorific medals and decorations won by von Kármán. A list of these awards is available from the Archives' catalog. A few commemorative medals, souvenirs and some memorabilia were added to Box 186, and Box 186.1 was created.

Acquisition Information

Theodore von Kármán left instructions in his will that his papers be given to the Laboratory of Fluid Mechanics and Jet Propulsion named after him at the California Institute of Technology. Shortly after his death in 1963, the U.S. Air Force Academy Library selected several items from the collection for an exhibit at the dedication of the new von Kármán wing of the Academy's library. These items were subsequently presented to the library. The collection itself remained in the custody of the Kármán Laboratory until April 1968, when Professors Duncan Rannie and Frank Marble released the material to Dr. Judith R. Goodstein, the Institute's Archivist, following the formal creation of Caltech's science archives program.

Material in the 1994 supplement to the von Kármán Papers was given to the Caltech Archives by Professor Frank Marble in September and December, 1994.

All materials described in the 1994 Supplement guide came originally from von Kármán's estate.

Alternate Formats of this Collection

This collection is also available in microfilm.

The microfiche edition of the von Kármán collection consists of the contents of 3,496 folders, representing virtually all the documents in boxes 1 through 157, reproduced on 4,131 microfiche cards. The documents cover the years 1871 to 1963, but the core of the collection consists of the records relating to his career in Germany after World War I; materials pertaining to his association with such organizations as the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, the National Advisory Committee on Aviation, the Air Force, and the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics; and personal and scientific correspondence with colleagues and students in Europe, the Far East, and the United States.

The microfiche publication of the Theodore von Kármán collection in 1980 was supported by a contract with the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.

The papers have been microfiched in the order in which the collection itself is arranged. Each microfiche card has the same identification number and title as the original folder number. Copyrighted publications, with the exception of newspaper clippings, were not filmed.

Processing History

The systematic arrangement and description of the collection began in 1976, with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The papers were processed by Annamarie Keene, Jackie Kuhl, and Ruth Gordon. The project was completed in September 1978. The publication in 1981 of the printed guide to the von Kármán papers and microfiche edition, under the editorship of Judith R. Goodstein and Carolyn Kopp, was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The 1994 supplement was processed by Charlotte E. Erwin in March 1995. The finding aid was updated in July 1999.

Guide to the Theodore von Kármán Papers, 1871-1963, bulk 1920-1963
Judith R. Goodstein, Carolyn Kopp, and Charlotte E. Erwin
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Edition statement
Originally processed in 1978. Supplement completed July 1999. Francisco J. Medina. Derived from XML/EAD encoded file by the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics as part of a collaborative project (1999) supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Repository Details

Part of the California Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections Repository

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