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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mystery History -- Solved!

Bellis wins with her 9:21 p.m. Tuesday guess "It's the wind tunnel for testing aircraft in the Guggenheim Building at Caltech."

In the photo above, two unidentified men stand on the edge of the first wind tunnel in the four-story Guggenheim Building on the Caltech campus in 1928. The wind tunnel dominated the building, which still stands at the south end of the campus.

Here's the Guggenheim Building under construction in 1927. . .

. . .and the front doors today:

Conceived by Theodore von Kármán, famously known as the father of aeronautics, the wind tunnel was built just two years after the end of World War I and operated by what is now Caltech's Department of Aerospace.
Before it opened for aeronautics testing it was inspected by Charles Lindbergh, who was on special assignment by the federal government to inspect aeronautics research capabilities nationwide.
Here are some of the fashion-conscious scientists and engineers who worked in the wind tunnel at the time:
Eventually the wind tunnel was used to test many of the warplanes that helped the Allies win World War II. It became so important to the war effort that armed guards were posted around the building and Caltech scientists and engineers worked in shifts around the clock.

For example, the Lockheed XP-38 bomber was called the “fork-tailed devil” by the Luftwaffe. But before it ever took flight, a model was tested in the wind tunnel in 1938.

And still later the wind tunnel tested the aerodynamic capabilities of more modern aircraft. This photo was shot in 1959:
The wind tunnel continued in service until it was decommissioned in 1997 to make room for additional classroom, lab and office space.
But that wasn't the end of wind tunnels on campus; that original wind tunnel was replaced by a smaller, more modern two-story unit in the Guggenheim Building.
And the new one was preceded by a Mach 20 hypersonic wind tunnel that can emulate conditions of a spacecraft returning to Earth's atmosphere from interplanetary flight (this one's at a different campus location).
Why are wind tunnels so important the aerospace industry? See an interesting article here that includes quotes by Gerald Landry, former manager of Caltech's wind tunnel.
Many thanks to Caltech, the Pasadena Museum of History and Non Paratus.


  1. I'm very impressed by what you've written. Did you train as a historian? I guess I should have recused myself because I helped curate an exhibition on the contribution Caltech made to the local aerospace industry. In the early days of aviation, the Caltech engineers worked very closely with young companies such as Douglas, Boeing and Lockheed. A grad student worked out that it was safe to make planes from metal rather than wood and canvas. The man in knickerbockers in the photo is Clark Millikan, Robert Millikan's son. The exhibition is still up in Parson's Gates at Caltech - want me to show you round?

  2. That was my 1st thought. I did know this afterall! But I didn't know how big the wind tunnel actually was. Was it so big as pictured & still able to fit into that building. I just wasn't sure. Good history as usual, PIO!

  3. That's good stuff. I love the Guggenheim Building and have been in it several times, but never knew there had been a wind tunnel.