Hermann Föttinger was the first professor of fluid physics. His subject area has now become the central fundamental discipline of engineering and natural sciences and has a wide range of industrial applications. Today, both the Institute of Fluid Mechanics at Technische Universität Berlin and a complex of buildings on the University’s campus are named after him.
Hermann Föttinger’s life was remarkable in a number of ways. He completed his schooling at the Königliches Realgymnasium in his hometown of Nuremberg in 1895 before taking up his studies in electrical engineering at the Technical University of Munich in 1899. During his student years he began to develop an interest in research in the area of mechanical engineering as a result of attending lectures given by Professor August Otto Föppl. After completing his degree he worked as a design engineer at the Vulcan ship-building yard in Stettin (Szczecin). He worked on the testing and implementation of new steam turbine systems and was awarded the most important of his more than 100 patents for an invention which achieved world-wide fame as the Föttinger Transformer. The significance of this fluid coupling and transformation system is that it enabled a ship’s steam turbine to be directly connected to its propeller.
Föttinger was awarded his doctor of engineering at the Technical University of Munich. In fall 1909 he was appointed professor at Königlich Technische Hochschule Danzig (Gdansk), where he set up an institute of fluid mechanics. Although his primary area of focus remained shipbuilding, he also worked on developing the physics of technical flow phenomena. He continued teaching and researching in Gdansk until 1924. His time there was interrupted by a brief period of voluntary assistance during World War I, working on the committee for ship inspection and torpedo approval in Kiel.
Föttinger began his Berlin years on 24 October 1924 when he took up the first German professorship for general fluid mechanics and turbomachinery at Technische Hochschule Berlin. His opening lecture was the focus of considerable attention and he used the occasion to establish a strong link between the classical fundamentals of fluid mechanics and their current applications in terms of the theories of interface layers, airfoils and propulsion. He devoted himself to the development of a new institute and put together a team of talented scientists to conduct research into various areas of fluid mechanics. Wide-ranging research fields He extended his technical ingenuity to other areas, working in the research institute for water and ship building. He also worked at the testing laboratory for flow research and wind turbines where he was able to provide fresh impetus with his vortex theory of screw propellers. Together with Franz Kruckenberg, he developed the legendary “Schienenzeppelin”, or rail zeppelin, a propeller-driven high-speed train.
It is also interesting to note that he never published a weighty teaching book, with the majority of his technical articles appearing in the almanac of the German Society of Maritime Technology. He warned his students of the dangers of a “closed mentality” associated with over-specialization, which for him represented the “death of an academic career and the cause of premature intellectual aging”. He stressed the importance of adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, embracing subjects related to a particular area of expertise. Hermann Föttinger died during the final days of the war on 28 April 1945 as a result of being struck by shrapnel. He is buried in Wilmersdorf in the cemetery on Berliner Straße.