Although the story is well-known to us today, kids in the 1940s and 1950s would be forgiven for not knowing it by heart, as it was seldom mentioned in the comics. Indeed, the first detailed origin of Superman beyond the very basics came in Superman #53, the tenth anniversary issue.
Well, that is if you ignore the Superman radio program, from which the Krypton part is largely copied. It was on the first episode of that program, in February 1940 that Jor-El's name first appeared.
The origin is pretty much as we know it today; Krypton was doomed, Jor-El was the only one to understand this, and other scientists scoffed at his prediction. In the origin as of Superman #53, we first learn the detail that the core of the planet consisted of uranium, and thus:
This seems obviously inspired by the actual atomic bomb which had been dropped on Japan only three years earlier. Interestingly, when Jor-El suggests rocket ships to Earth, another scientist laughs at the primitive Earthlings and points out that "They do not even have X-Ray vision."
This highlights a common problem with researching Krypton; at this point the writers and editors had not settled on exactly how Superman got his powers. There are stories which indicate that the Kryptonians were super even on their own planet, although this causes obvious problems (like why they didn't just fly away under their own power when the planet exploded).
Jor-El tries to coax Lara into joining their son in the rocket, but she insists on staying with her husband, and they launch their baby into space as their world ends.
In Superman #61, Superman finds himself suddenly experiencing weakness whenever he's around a pair of meteorites. He tracks them into the past and discovers they came from the planet Krypton. He sees a man who looks a lot like him, explaining to his wife that the planet is doomed. He follows the rocket to Earth and is stunned to realize when the Kents come upon the baby that it is his own past he is viewing. This is the first that he knows his own origin (and his first experience with Kryptonite).
Of course, both those aspects of the story were later retconned, as Superboy often encountered Kryptonite and (it was explained) he had nearly perfect memory and could recall many significant details of his life on Krypton.
In Superman #65, we learned that Jor-El was the leader of the Science Council which governed Krypton:
Although making Jor-El a leader was a natural desire for the writers and editor, it does cause some cognitive dissonance. Does it make sense that warnings of doom from such a respected elder would be greeted with the hoots of derision that Jor-El faces?
Note as well the Saturn-like symbol on his chest. This was pretty much the symbol for Jor-El before Weisinger standardized things in the Silver Age, although the colors of his uniform often changed. This story introduces one lasting element of Jor-El's mythos: the banishment of criminals into space in suspended animation:
Until the advent of the punishment ray (aka Phantom Zone projector) this would be Krypton's method of dealing with major criminals. Again, this is problematic from a logical standpoint; if Krypton had developed rocketry, why were they unable to send more than one baby boy off into space before the planet exploded?
In Superman #74, we see the first of Jor-El's many dangerous inventions. Luthor invents a ray that will pull objects from Krypton to him. Of course, his intent is to get a giant chunk of Kryptonite, but by chance he gets Jor-El's weapon cache. Included are a ray that turns people into stone (including Superman himself), levitation bombs, invisibility spray, a lightning projector, a magnet that attracts humans, and a weapon that will give anyone power over all men. This last dread device is finally used at the end of the story, but:
Up to this point (1952) Jor-El had been used sparingly, but afterward he became a frequently recurring character, appearing in many stories. In Superman #77, he met Professor Enders, an Earth scientist whom he teleports to Krypton and who reveals:
In many other stories, however, it is common knowledge among Jor-El and other scientists that they would have super-powers on Earth, although this does appear to be the first mention that some of the powers would come from the sun. And the story does raise more questions than it answers; if Jor-El is able to teleport Professor Enders back to Earth (as he does), then why doesn't he do the same with his family?
In World's Finest #69, Jor-El appears only in a brief flashback, but we learn that he had sent a will along with the rocket ship that his son traveled in. In that will he describes many inventions which Superman soon realizes (after testing them) are too dangerous for Earthlings. But one invention is a nuclear fission tester. When Superman builds it, he learns that Earth is undergoing the same reactions that destroyed his home planet, and he takes steps to quell the coming explosion. Thus, even though Jor-El was unable to save Krypton, he does prevent Earth from suffering the same fate.
Jor-El created many other inventions, including his famous land, sea, air and underground vehicle:
We don't know much about Jor-El's youth. In Superman #141, we learned that his father was named Jor-El I. His brother Zor-El of course is well-known as the father of Kara, aka Supergirl. But did you know he had another brother? Nim-El appeared in Adventure #304, in which we learned that he was the keeper at the Armory of Forbidden Weapons.
Many of the stories in the Jor-El canon concern his courtship of and marriage to Lara. These stories tend to be wildly inconsistent. In Lois Lane #39, we (apparently) learn that Lara got him to stop paying attention to his computer and pop the question by cooking him a rainbow cake:
However, at the end of that story it's revealed that this was just a dream that Lois had, and thus we don't really know that's how they became engaged.
In Lois Lane #59, Lois travels in time and space on a mission of mercy, with plans from a scientist who has invented a device to prevent a nuclear explosion. She hopes to save Krypton from destruction and, using Professor Potter's experimental time machine, she brings the blueprints to Jor-El. But inevitably fate intervenes as it happens that Jor-El constructs the device in Kandor and it disappears with Brainiac's abduction of that city. When Lois discovers that the time machine is out of order, she decides to make the most of a bad situation by stealing Jor-El from Lara:
Yuck. Terrible characterization for both Lois and Jor-El there, especially when Lois reacts to the stealing of Kandor by splitting in the time globe, which suddenly works again.
Of course, Lara got even worse characterization in Superman #170. In that story, Luthor goes back to Krypton, and woos and wins Lara. As they are about to be married, however, fate intervenes as a battery wears down on a device Luthor is wearing to prevent him from being crushed by Krypton's greater gravity. He confesses that he had lied about his planet of origin and (after the battery is replaced) flees. Lara marries Jor-El on the rebound:
In Superman #123 we learn that Jor-El and Lara, as a young couple not yet married, worked as agents for the KBI (Krypton Bureau of Investigation) and had infiltrated a plot to install a dictator on Krypton:
Note the reversed swastika on the wall and the name of the dictator; Weisinger and Otto Binder weren't much for subtlety.
However, as always seems to happen in such stories, the only person who knew they were playing a role has died, and thus they are sentenced to 100 years in suspended animation in a prison satellite. Superman frees them, defeats Kil-Lor, and provides them with proof they were working against the dictator. Flush with victory, Jor-El proposes:
Superman sends them back to Krypton with his best wishes, apparently not realizing that this will result in their deaths.
Even after their marriage, things occasionally got rocky for the young couple, as when Krypto got shot into space:
Although in the original Krypto story in Adventure #210 she was much more understanding about the need to test his rocket ship.
Jor-El won several awards during his scientific career. For starters, he was awarded his seat on the Science Council for inventing the Phantom Zone projector (aka Punishment Ray). His greatest award however was described in Adventure #323:
Of course, even a busy scientist must take some leisure time, and when Jor-El wanted to relax he enjoyed a game of Interplanetary Scramble:
And when he played Robot Wars with his son, he let the tyke win:
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Grand Comics Database, without which this post would be much less comprehensive. I also thank several friends who were kind enough to scan in copies of the issues I was missing.