In Memoriam: Peter Wegener, Helped Develop Hypersonic Wind Tunnels

Peter P. Wegener, the Harold Hodgkinson Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Department of Engineering and Applied Science at Yale, died on Sept. 13 at the age of 91.

Wegener played a role in the development of hypersonic wind tunnels and gas lasers, and led an effort at Yale to promote interdisciplinary understanding between the humanities and the sciences.

Born Aug. 29, 1917, in Berlin, Germany, he was the son of the famous German actor Paul Wegener and the Czechoslovakian actress Lyda Salmanova.

Wegener began to study physics and geophysics at Berlin’s Humboldt University, but in 1939 he was drafted into the German Army. He later took two leaves of absence from the army in order to finish his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees simultaneously, receiving them in 1943.

He was transferred from the Russian front and assigned to the V2 project in Peenemunde. He worked on the team that was instrumental in the development of the world’s first hypersonic wind tunnel. This development was a key in the design and construction of the first successful liquid fueled rocket to reach the upper bounds of the Earth’s atmosphere.

After the war he came to the United States as part of “Operation Paperclip,” which also brought Wernher von Braun and other German rocket scientists to this country to work at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in Maryland. There, Wegener developed continuous supersonic and hypersonic wind tunnels. At the same time, he began lecturing at the John Hopkins University’s Department of Aeronautics and at the University of Maryland’s Department of Aeronautical Engineering, as well as consulting for Ohio State University. For his work, Wegener received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award from the U.S. Navy in 1951.

In 1953 he took a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, working in fluid mechanics and the continued development of wind tunnels. In becoming section chief in aerodynamics research, Wegener expanded his fields of expertise to gas dynamics, condensation and chemical kinetics.

He came to Yale in 1960 as a full professor. In 1964 he was appointed director of the Division of Applied Sciences and then became a member of the executive committee of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences. He served as chair of the Department of Engineering and Applied Science 1966-1971, during which time he was named the Becton Professor. In 1972 he was awarded the Harold Hodgkinson Professorship.

During his tenure as chair, the department grew and became a center for research and innovation. Led by Wegener, the scientists developed gas lasers, an accomplishment that strengthened Yale’s reputation as a world-class scientific institution.

At Yale he was also involved in a multidisciplinary effort to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences. Late in his career Wegener became interested in expanding scientific teaching to non-science majors. He worked in New Haven public schools to help further the teaching of science in ways relevant to students not focusing upon math or science as careers.

Wegener was sought out for his expertise and consulted for Rand Corporation, NASA, National Science Foundation and the National Research Council. He spent several terms as guest lecturer abroad at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Jiaotong University in Xian, China, the University of Karlsruhe in Germany (where he received an honorary degree) and at Oxford University.

After retiring from Yale in 1987, Wegener continued to be involved as an emeritus professor. He also took up writing. His 1987 book “How Airplanes Fly” has been used across the country and in Europe to teach high school and college students about aeronautics and scientific thought. He later wrote about his experiences during World War II in “The Wind Tunnels of Peenemunde.” This book has been hailed for offering important insights into the workings of a significant engineering achievement as well as for being an unapologetic record of the ethical and moral dilemmas that faced individuals working within the Nazi state during World War II.

Wegener received numerous awards and honors during his career. He was a Senior American Scientist in the Humboldt Foundation, a fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

He is survived by his wife, Annette Wegener, and his three sons: Paul, Christopher and Philip.