A Look at the History of Computational Fluid Dynamics

For many engineers, CFD is an essential part of determining whether their designs will work, but up until recently, it hasn’t always been practical.


The core of CFD is based on the Navier-Stokes equations which examine single-phase fluid flows. In the early 1930s, scientists and engineers were already using these equations to solve fluid problems, but due to the lack of computing power, the equations were simplified and reduced to 2 dimensions. While rudimentary, these first practical applications of fluid dynamic analysis gave way to what would soon be an essential simulation asset.

For most of the early years, CFD meant simplifying equations to the point that they could be done by hand. By no means was the average engineer using these calculations, rather up until the late 1950s, CFD remains largely a theoretical and exploratory practice. As you could probably have guessed, computing technology improved in the 1950s bringing practical CFD came to fruition. First developed by a team at the Los Alamos National Lab in 1957 was the first functional CFD computer simulation model. The team spent the better part of 10 years working on these computational models which created the early models for much of the foundation of modern programs, spanning the vorticity-in-stream function to particle-in-cell analysis.

By 1967, Douglas Aircraft had relatively perfected a working 3 dimensional CFD analysis method. The analysis was fairly basic and was developed for fluid flow over airfoils. It later became known as the panel method as the geometry being analyzed was largely simplified to make computation easier.

From this point in history onward, the history of CFD is one largely based on innovative mathematics and computer programming. 


Full potential equations were incorporated into the technology by Boeing in the 1970s. The Euler equations for transonic flows were then incorporated into codes in 1981. While the early history of CFD is ripe with development, it is also notable the companies involved in the pursuit of furthering the industry. The two key players in the game were NASA and Boeing for what are hopefully obvious reasons. By the 1990s however, the technology and computing ability had become advanced enough that automakers began seeing the application in automotive design. GM and Ford adopted the technology in 1995 and began making cars that were much more aerodynamic when compared to the boxy wagons of past.

The history of CFD is riddled with big names in the industry, all of which have taken the analysis from oversimplified calculations to being one of the biggest simulation tools available. For many modern engineers, understanding the complex mathematics behind CFD isn’t necessary to run simulations. Rather than the practice being only used in environments surrounded by experts, it can now be accessed by the everyday engineer having virtually any skill level. I don’t know about you, but having access to some of the most mathematically powerful simulation analysis software as just a common engineer is, well, pretty cool.

Sources: Stanford, IITK, CFD Online

Images: [1], [2] 

Profile photo of Trevor English
Trevor is a civil engineer by trade with an extensive background in internet media and marketing. He loves finding new and interesting topics and bringing them to the rest of the world.

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