On November 8, 1940 newspapers across America opened with the headline “TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE COLLAPSES”. The headline caught the eye of a prominent engineering professor who, from reading the news story, intuitively realised that a specific aerodynamical phenomenon must have led to the collapse. He was correct, and became publicly famous for what is now known as the von Kármán vortex street.

Theodore von Kármán was one of the most pre-eminent aeronautical engineers of the 20th century. Born and raised in Budapest, Hungary he was a member of a club of 20th century Hungarian scientists, including mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann and nuclear physicist Edward Teller, who made groundbreaking strides in their respective fields. Von Kármán was a PhD student of Ludwig Prandtl at the University of Göttingen, the leading aerodynamics institute in the world at the time and home to many great German scientists and mathematicians.

Von Karman and JATO Team - GPN-2000-001652 (cropped)

Theodore von Kármán jotting down a plan on a wing before a rocket-powered aircraft test

Although brilliant at mathematics from an early age, von Kármán preferred to boil complex equations down to their essentials, attempting to find simple solutions that would provide the most intuitive physical insight. At the same time, he was a big proponent of using practical experiments to tease out novel phenomena that could then be explained using straightforward mathematics. During WWI he took a leave of absence from his role as professor of aeronautics at the University of Aachen to fulfil his military duties, overseeing the operations of a military research facility in Austria. In this role he developed a helicopter that was to replace hot-air balloons for surveillance of battlefields. Due to his combined expertise in aerodynamics and structural design he became a consultant to the Junkers aircraft and Zeppelin airship companies, helping to design the first all-metal cantilevered wing aircraft, the Junker J-1, and the Zeppelin Los Angeles.

Furthermore, von Kármán developed an unusual expertise in building wind tunnels — a suitable had not originally exist when he first started his professorship in Aachen and was desperately needed for his research. As a result, he became a sought after expert in designing and overseeing the construction of wind tunnels in the USA and Japan. Von Kármán’s broad skill set and unique combination of theoretical and experimental expertise soon placed him on the radar of physicist Robert Millikan who was setting up a new technical university in Pasadena, California, the California Institute of Technology. Millikan believed that the year-round temperate climate would attract all of the major aircraft companies of the bourgeoning aerospace industry to Southern California, and he hired von Kármán to head CalTech’s aerospace institute. Millikan’s wager paid off when companies such as Northrup, Lockheed, Douglas and Consolidated Aircraft (later Convair) all settled in the greater Los Angeles area. Von Kármán thus became a consultant on iconic aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3, the Northrup Flying Wing, and later the rockets developed by NACA (now NASA).

Von Kármán is renowned for many concepts in structural mechanics and aerodynamics, e.g. the non-linear behaviour of cylinder buckling and a mathematical theory describing turbulent boundary layers. His most well-known piece of work, the von Kármán vortex street, tragically, reached public notoriety after it explained the collapse of a suspension bridge over the Puget Sound in 1940.

The von Kármán vortex street is a direct result of boundary layer separation over bluff bodies. Immersed in fluid flow, any body of finite thickness will force the surrounding fluid to flow in curved streamlines around it. Towards the leading edge this causes the flow to speed up in order to balance the centripetal forces created by the curved streamlines. This creates a region of falling fluid pressure, also called a favourable pressure gradient. Further along the body, where the streamlines straighten out, the opposite occurs and the fluid flows into a region of rising pressure, an adverse pressure gradient. The increasing pressure gradient pushes against the flow and causes the slowest parts of the flow, those immediately adjacent to the surface, to reverse direction. At this point the boundary layer has separated from the body and the combination of flow in two directions induces a wake of turbulent vortices (see diagram below).

Boundary layer separation over cylinder

Boundary layer separation over cylinder

The type of flow in the wake depends on the Reynolds number of the flow impinging on the body,

 Re = \frac{\rho V d}{\mu}

where \rho is the density of the fluid, V is the impinging free stream flow velocity, d is a characteristic length of the body, e.g. the diameter for a sphere or cylinder, and \mu is the viscosity or inherent stickiness of the fluid. The Reynolds number essentially takes the ratio of inertial forces \rho V d to viscous forces \mu, and captures the extent of laminar flow (layered flow with little mixing) and turbulent flow (flow with strong mixing via vortices).

Flow around a cylinder for different Reynolds numbers

Flow around a cylinder for different Reynolds numbers

For example, consider the flow past an infinitely long cylinder protruding out of your screen (as shown in the figure above). For very low Reynolds number flow (Re < 10) the inertial forces are negligible and the streamlines connect smoothly behind the cylinder. As the Reynolds number is increased into the range of Re = 10-40 (by, for example, increasing the free stream velocity V), the boundary layer separates symmetrically from either side of the cylinder, and two eddies form that rotate in opposite directions. These eddies remain fixed and do not “peel away” from the cylinder. Behind the vortices the flow from either side rejoins and the size of the wake is limited to a small region behind the cylinder. As the Reynolds number is further increased into the region Re > 40, the symmetric eddy formation is broken and two asymmetric vortices form. Such an instability is known as a symmetry-breaking bifurcation in stability theory and the ensuing asymmetric vortices undergo periodic oscillations by constantly interchanging their position with respect to the cylinder. At a specific critical value of Reynolds number (Re ~ 100) the eddies start to peel away, alternately from either side of the cylinder, and are then washed downstream. As visualised below, this can produce a rather pretty effect…


This condition of alternately shedding vortices from the sides of the cylinder is known as the von Kármán vortex street. At a certain distance from the cylinder the behaviour obviously dissipates, but close to the cylinder the oscillatory shedding can have profound aeroelastic effects on the structure. Aeroelasticity is the study of how fluid flow and structures interact dynamically. For example, there are two very important locations on an aircraft wing:
– the centre of pressure, i.e. an idealised point of the wing where the lift can be assumed to act as a point load
– the shear centre, i.e. the point of any structural cross-section through which a point load must act to cause pure bending and no twisting

The problem is that the centre of pressure and shear centre are very rarely coincident, and so the aerodynamic lift forces will typically not only bend a wing but also cause it to twist. Twisting in a manner that forces the leading edge upwards increases the angle of attack and thereby increases the lift force. This increased lift force produces more twisting, which produces more lift, and so on. This phenomenon is known as divergence and can cause a wing to twist-off the fuselage.

A different, yet equally pernicious, aeroelastic instability can occur as a result of the von Kármán vortex street. Each time an eddy is shed from the cylinder, the symmetry of the flow pattern is broken and a difference in pressure is induced between the two sides of the cylinder. The vortex shedding therefore produces alternating sideways forces that can cause sideways oscillations. If the frequency of these oscillations is the same as the natural frequency of the cylinder, then the cylinder will undergo resonant behaviour and start vibrating uncontrollably.

So, how does this relate to the fated Tacoma Narrows bridge?

Upon completion, the first Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge, costing $6.4 mill and the third longest bridge of its kind, was described as the fanciest single span bridge in the world. With its narrow towers and thin stiffening trusses the bridge was valued for its grace and slenderness. On the morning of November 7, 1940, only a year into its service, the bridge broke apart in a light gale and crashed into the Puget Sound 190 feet below. From its inaugural day on July 1, 1940 something seemed not quite right. The span of the bridge would start to undulate up and down in light breezes, securing the bridge the nickname “Galloping Gertie”. Engineers tried to stabilise the bridge using heavy steel cables fixed to steel blocks on either side of the span. But to no avail, the galloping continued.

On the morning of the collapse, Gertie was bouncing around in its usual manner. As the winds started to intensify to 60 kmh (40 mph) the rhythmic up and down motion of the bridge suddenly morphed into a violent twisting motion spiralling along the deck. At this point the authorities closed the bridge to any further traffic but the bridge continued to writhe like a corkscrew. The twisting became so violent that the sides of the bridge deck separated by 9 m (28 feet) with the bridge deck oriented at 45° to the horizontal. For half an hour the bridge resisted these oscillatory stresses until at one point the deck of the bridge buckled, girders and steel cables broke loose and the bridge collapsed into the Puget Sound.

After the collapse, the Governor of Washington, Clarence Martin, announced that the bridge had been built correctly and that another one would be built using the same basic design. At this point von Kármán started to feel uneasy and he asked technicians at CalTech to build a small rubber replica of the bridge for him. Von Kármán then tested the bridge at home using a small electric fan. As he varied the speed of the fan, the model started to oscillate, and these oscillations grew greater as the rhythm of the air movement induced by the fan was synchronised with the oscillations.

Indeed, Galloping Gertie had been constructed using cylindrical cable stays and these shed vortices in a periodic manner when a cross-wind reached a specific intensity. Because the bridge was also built using a solid sidewall, the vortices impinged immediately onto a solid section of the bridge, inducing resonant vibrations in the bridge structure.

Von Kármán then contacted the governor and wrote a short piece for the Engineering News Record describing his findings. Later, von Kármán served on the committee that investigated the cause of the collapse and to his surprise the civil engineers were not at all enamoured with his explanation. In all of the engineers’ training and previous engineering experience, the design of bridges had been governed by “static forces” of gravity and constant maximum wind load. The effects of “dynamic loads”, which caused bridges to swing from side to side, had been observed but considered to be negligible. Such design flaws, stemming from ignorance rather than the improper application of design principles, are the most harrowing as the mode of failure is entirely unaccounted for. Fortunately, the meetings adjourned with agreements in place to test the new Tacoma Narrows bridge in a wind tunnel at CalTech, a first at the time. As a result of this work, the solid sidewall of the bridge deck was perforated with holes to prevent vortex shedding, and a number of slots were inserted into the bridge deck to prevent differences in pressure between the top and bottom surfaces of the deck.

The one person that did suffer irrefutable damage to his reputation was the insurance agent that initially underwrote the $6 mill insurance policy for the state of Washington. Figuring that something as big as the Tacoma Narrows bridge would never collapse, he pocketed the insurance premium himself without actually setting up a policy, and ended up in jail…

If you would like to learn more about Theodore von Kármán’s life, I highly recommend his autobiography, which I have reviewed here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: