IEEE Mourns the Loss of Aerospace Legend Simon Ramo

The Life Fellow and TRW cofounder helped develop the intercontinental ballistic missile

27 July 2016

IEEE Fellow Simon Ramo cofounded TRW, a defense contractor that developed the intercontinental ballistic missile. The ICBM, meant to carry nuclear weapons, wound up launching the first U.S. manned missions to space.

Ramo also was known for having a wry sense of humor. In the 1950s, when one of TRW’s first missiles rose about 15 centimeters off the ground before toppling over and exploding, Ramo reportedly beamed and said, “Now that we know the thing can fly, all we have to do is improve its range a bit.”

Ramo, known as the “R” in TRW or simply “Si” to his friends and family, died on 27 June at the age of 103.

EARLY YEARS

Ramo was born on 7 May 1913 in Salt Lake City. According to his 1988 book, The Business of Science: Winning and Losing in the High-Tech Age, as a child he aspired to be a concert violinist. But when at age 12 he heard legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, he decided he would be better off pursuing a career in science.

Just four years later Ramo entered the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. By the age of 23, he had earned dual doctorates—one in physics and one in EE—from Caltech.

In 1936 he joined General Electric, in Schenectady, N.Y., where he was a manager of electronics research. He led the development of GE’s electron microscope, which is now used in toxicology, structural biology, high-resolution imaging, forensics, and other fields.

While working at GE, he was granted 25 patents before the age of 30. That total grew to more than 40 during his lifetime. He was granted his last patent at age 100—for a computer-based learning device—making him the oldest recipient of a U.S. patent.

TAKING FLIGHT

Ramo left GE in 1946 and headed back to the West, becoming director of electronics research at Hughes Aircraft Co., in Culver City, Calif. While there he helped launch the company’s military electronics division and met his future business partner Dean Wooldridge. The two worked on an electronic system to direct weapons that became the standard for U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft. In 1948 Ramo was named vice president of the company’s aerospace group.

Ramo and Wooldridge left in 1953 to form Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. in Los Angeles. The same year, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration awarded a contract to the new company to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles for the Air Force. ICBMs were designed to deliver nuclear weapons.

In essence, Eisenhower entrusted a project that he considered more complex than building the atomic bomb to two young scientists who, at the time, were working out of a former barbershop. With the contract in hand, Ramo and Wooldridge moved to larger quarters—an empty church in Inglewood, Calif.—where they removed pews to make room for their workshop.

In 1958 Ramo-Wooldridge’s Atlas rocket carried the U.S. Army SCORE (Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay) satellite more than 8,000 kilometers downrange. Atlas could deliver a nuclear warhead up to that distance in less than 60 minutes. The rocket was never used for that purpose, however. Before its military use ended in 1965, Atlas had placed four astronauts in Earth’s orbit as part of NASA’s Project Mercury. The rocket was also the foundation for a family of space-launch vehicles including the Atlas Agena and the Atlas Centaur.

Ramo-Wooldridge merged in 1958 with Thompson Products, a manufacturer of aircraft engine components—becoming Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, or TRW. In the early 1960s Ramo helped design the company’s 40-hectare Space Park facility in Redondo Beach, Calif., where several episodes of the 1960s television series Star Trek would later be filmed. The buildings were designed so that every TRW employee could have a desk with a view of a courtyard.

A LASTING LEGACY

Ramo retired from TRW in 1978 at 65, but he continued to advise the U.S. government on major space and weapons-development projects. He was a member of the National Science Board, the White House Council on Energy R&D, and several advisory committees to the Defense Department and NASA. He was a founding member of the National Academy of Engineering. In 1983 President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ramo helped guide one of the largest defense industry mergers in 2002 by persuading top executives at Northrop Grumman to buy TRW for US $7.8 billion. Six years later he joined the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, as chair of the electrical engineering department.

He was named Fellow in 1950 “for his many contributions to the analysis of electromagnetic phenomena and for his leadership in research.” He received the IEEE Founders Medal in 1980 “for contributions and leadership in the development, applications, and management of systems engineering in the field of electronics.”

In 1982 the IEEE Board of Directors established the IEEE Simon Ramo Medal, an annual award to honor achievement in systems engineering or systems science.

He left a lasting impression on many IEEE volunteers. “I became aware of Simon in the 1960s, first as a student and then later as a young professor teaching from his famous textbook Fields and Waves in Communication Electronics, IEEE Fellow Fawwaz T. Ulaby says. “He was regarded by instructors as the 20th-century guru of everything about applied electromagnetics.”

“The first time I met Si was at a ‘victory’ party for the committee that planned a successful IEEE Oceans conference in 1976,” recalls Fellow Eric Herz, former general manager and executive director of IEEE. “I called him often to ask his opinion about potential award nominees, and he always came to the phone. The last time we spoke was just after he turned 99.”

Ramo and Virginia Smith were married from 1937 until her death in 2009. The couple had two sons, James Brian and Alan Martin, as well as four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

For more information on Ramo’s life and career, read his oral history on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

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