Milutin Milankovic was born on May 28, 1879, at Dali near Osijek, in what was then Austria-Hungary.
He received a degree from the School of Civil Engineering in June, 1902, having submitted a project for a reinforced concrete bridge. His thesis, Theorie der Druckkurven (Theory of Pressure Lines), was noted for its original approach; it was published in 1907, in the eminent German scientific, non-technical, review Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik, Bd. 55.
At the beginning of 1905, Milankovic took up practical work and joined the then famous firm of Adolf Baron Pittel Betonbau-Unternehmung in Vienna. He built dams, bridges, viaducts, aqueducts and other structures in reinforced concrete throughout the Austria-Hungary of the time. Milankovic continued to practice civil engineering in Vienna until the autumn of 1909 when he was offered the chair of applied mathematics (rational mechanics, celestial mechanics, theoretical physics) in Belgrade. The year 1909 marked a turning point in his life. Though he continued to pursue his investigations of various problems pertaining to the application of reinforced concrete, he decided to concentrate on fundamental research.
Turbulent events took place as soon as he had settled down in Belgrade when the Balkan Wars were followed by World War I. When World War I broke out (he was just married), he was interned in Nezsider and later in Budapest, where he was allowed to work in the library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. As early as 1912, his interests turned to solar climates and temperatures prevailing on the planets. Throughout his internment in Budapest he devoted his time to the work in this field and, by the end of the war, he had finished a monograph on the problem which was published in 1920, in the editions of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts by Gauthiers-Villards in Paris, under the title Théorie mathématique des phénomènes thermiques produits par la radiation solaire (Mathematical theory of thermic phenomena caused by solar radiations).
The results set forth in this work won him considerable reputation in the scientific world, notably his curve of insolation at the Earth's surface. This solar curve was not really accepted until 1924 when the great meteorologist and climatologist Vladimir Köppen with his son-in-law Alfred Wegener, introduced the curve in their work Klimate der geologischen Vorzeit (Climates of Geological Past). After these first tributes, Milankovic was invited, in 1927, to cooperate in two important publications: the first was a handbook on climatology (Handbuch der Klimatologie) and the second a handbook on geophysics (Guttenberg's Handbuch der Geophysik). For the former, he wrote the introduction Mathematische Klimalehre und astronomische Theorie der Klimaschwankungen (Mathematical science of climate and astronomical theory of the variations of the climate), published in 1930 in German and in 1939 translated into Russian. Here the theory of planetary climate is further developed with special reference to the Earth.
For the second textbook, Milankovic wrote four sections developing and formulating his theory of the secular motion of the Earth's poles and his theory of glacial periods. Fully aware that his theory of solar radiation had been successfully completed and that the papers dealing with this theory were dispersed in separate publications, he decided to collect and publish them under a single cover. Thus, in 1941, on the eve of war in his country, the printing of his great work Kanon der Erdbestrahlung und seine Anwendung auf das Eiszeitenproblem (Canon of Insolation of the Earth and Its Application to the Problem of the Ice Ages) was completed, 626 pages in quarto, in Cemian, published in the editions of the Royal Serbian Academy. This work was translated into English under the title Canon of Insolation of the Ice-Age Problem, in 1969 by the Israel Programme for Scientific Translations and published for the U.S. Department of commerce and the National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Objections were raised in the 50's against the Milankovic theory of ice ages; these objections came mainly from meteorologists who claimed that the insolation changes due to the changes in the Earth's orbital elements were too small to perturb significantly the climate system. However, in the late 60's and 70's, investigation of the deep-sea sediments and theoretical works in celestial mechanics and climate modelling showed that Milankovic's view was correct and that the astronomically induced changes in insolation, received by the Earth from the Sun, was indeed the primary cause for the waxing and waning of the Quaternary ice sheets.
In addition to his scientific work, Milankovic always showed great interest in the historical development of science. In addition to a textbook on the history of astronomy, the wrote two books on a popular level: Through Space and Centuries fictionalized the development of astronomy while the other, entitled Through the Realm of Science, dealt with the development of exact sciences.
Milankovic also published a three volume autobiography in Serbo-Croatian, Recollection, Experiences and Vision, which was never translated. For this reason his son, Vasko Milankovic, has completed a beautiful biography: My father, Milutin Milankovic.
Milankovic was elected a corresponding member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1920, a full member in 1924, a corresponding member of the Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1925 and as member of the German Academy of Naturalists "Leopoldine" in Halle; he was also a member of many scientific societies and related to organisations, both in Yugoslavia and abroad.
He died on December 12, 1958, in Belgrade.