Notable Mechanical Engineers
Theodore von Karman
Theodore von Karman (1881-1963) was an aerodynamics pioneer noted for using advanced mathematics to formulate and solve a wide variety of problems in solid mechanics and aerodynamics, and for then using those solutions for practical applications. He was one of the founders of both Aerojet, a major American supplier of solid and liquid rocket/missile propulsion systems, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the organization that designed and launched America's first earth orbiting satellite, Explorer I, in 1957, and continues to construct and operate many of America's robotic planetary spacecraft, including the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta, and the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Professor von Karman name is associated with a many important engineering phenomena and equations, including the von Karman constant (a dimensionless constant describing the logarithmic velocity profile of a turbulent fluid flow near a boundary with a no-slip condition such as a wall), the von Karman vortex street (a repeating pattern of vortices caused by the separating flow of a fluid over bluff bodies), the Karman line (the accepted altitude - 100 km - marking the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space), the von Karman integral momentum equation (an integral form of the boundary layer momentum equation that is quite practical for calculating aerodynamic drag forces), and von Karman plate theory (characterized by a set of coupled, non-linear, partial differential equations describing large deflections of thin plates).
Clarence "Kelly" Johnson
Clarence "Kelly" Johnson (1910-1990) was one of America's most innovative and creative designers of aircraft, and founder of the Lockheed "Skunkworks" group that developed aircraft such as the P-80 (America's first practical jet-powered aircraft), the U-2 (famous spy plane that help maintain the peace during the Cold War), and the A-12/SR-71 (with a top speed of greater than Mach 3.2 and a service ceiling approaching 100,000 ft, the highest performance manned air-breathing aircraft of all time). Johnson earned his B.Sc. degree in aeronautical engineering (a discipline very closely related to mechanical engineering). As an engineer, he played a personal role in developing technologies and solving critical problems related to high speed flight (fowler flaps, compressibility effects, low drag surface finishes, use of titanium in airframes, air inlets for turbine engined aircraft, radar cross section reduction). Even more importantly, he was an effective technical manager, showing how engineers' intelligence, organization, and problem-solving abilities translated into teams capable of delivering remarkably complex devices on time and under budget.
Orville and Wilbur Wright
Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948), brothers from Dayton, Ohio, were the first humans to achieve manned, powered flight in a heavier than air machine. Although, largely self-taught, the brothers were perhaps the quintessential early-twentieth century engineers. After beginning their professional careers in the printing business, the opened a bicycle shop, where the mastered skills associated with building reliable, relatively lightweight machines. Their approach to building the first aircraft mirrors that taken by engineering teams today. They noted a problem/opportunity, and embarked on a process of synthesis, where they mastered and assessed the current state of the art. They conducted structured experiments to fill in gaps in the knowledge base, and began constructing a sequence of increasingly complex prototype kites and gliders to test their preliminary designs. They understood the importance of engineering at a systems level, and made steady progress on aerodynamics (their airfoil lift-drag data was decades ahead of its time), controls (they were the first to recognize the need for and design a three-axis control system), and powertrain (they designed and built their own lightweight internal combustion engine). The Wright brother's career illustrates the importance of effective teamwork in successful engineering projects.