Speaking for the Wind

Back around 1990, I picked up some stamps at the post office. My friend Barbara saw them and said, “Oh, a commemorative stamp for Theodore Von Karman. Do you know his great accomplishment?” I had no idea. She told this story:

“Theodore Von Karman was a brilliant, Hungarian-born, professor of physics at Cornell. When I was there in the 1950’s, they told us of his great adventure.

In 1940, the State of Washington, opened the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It was the third longest suspension bridge in the world, behind the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges. They opened it in July, and it collapsed in moderate winds the following November, just 4 months later. It had to do with the principles of harmonics and wind working together to create a deadly vortex. The principle was not well understood at the time. The engineers and architects studied the situation and decided the bridge had been built properly, the collapse was an anomoly, and they decided to build it again, exactly as they had before.

Prof. Von Karman heard of this decision, and attended their meeting. He warned them that if they built it again exactly as they had, it would collapse again exactly as it did. He tried to explain his theory of harmonics, but the staff became aggravated and defensive. They accused Prof. Von Karman of ulterior motives. They demanded to know his interest in their business; whom did he represent, and for whom did he speak?

Prof. Von Karman replied: “I speak for the wind.”

The bridge reopened nearly 10 years later, using a new scientific principle called ‘The Karman Vortex Street.’ It has influenced the construction of every long span bridge in the world, built after that date.

In 1963, at age 81, Prof. Von Kármán was the recipient of the first National Medal of Science, bestowed in a White House ceremony by President John F. Kennedy.”

Note: You can see a film of the bridge’s collapse on YouTube.


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