Simon Ramo (1913–2016)
National Medal of Science recipient in 1979 “for basic contributions to microwave electronics, and imaginative technical leadership in making large electronic systems available to the country for defense and civilian uses.”
Simon Ramo was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the son of Eastern European immigrants; his father was descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Ramo studied electrical engineering at the University of Utah and, by the age of 23, had earned his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). In an effort to get through the doctoral program as quickly as possible, Ramo completed his foreign language requirements by passing both the French and German exams during one exam period, without ever having studied either language.
In addition to a talent for foreign languages, he is an accomplished amateur musician, and cites his music background as one of the reasons he got hired at General Electric (GE) after graduation--the recruiter who came to campus in 1936 was also in search of a violinist for the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra.
Ramo spent a decade at the GE Research Laboratories, working at the forefront of microwave electricity and acquiring 25 patents before his 30th birthday. His textbook on fields and waves, first published in 1944 with co-author John R. Whinnery, has become a classic in the field. In 1946, Ramo returned to California to accept a position at Hughes Aircraft. Though the Pentagon was anxious about Howard Hughes' eccentric personality, they trusted Ramo as the leader of research and development for airborne communications, computers and guided missiles, including the Falcon missile.
Dean Wooldridge and Simon Ramo (right) compare their pictures in a painting on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1957. Their company did systems engineering for the nation’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) before merging with Thompson Products in 1958. Credit: TRW Archive
At Hughes, Ramo worked closely with his Caltech classmate, Dean Wooldridge. The pair grew increasingly frustrated with Hughes’ unconventional management. They resigned together in 1953 and quickly formed the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, which became the lead contractor for the U.S. Air Force. The new company was backed by Thompson Products and the two companies eventually merged in 1958, forming Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, Inc. (later TRW Inc.). The company was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002.
Now in his late 90s, Ramo is still producing op-eds and papers on current issues in systems engineering, including the future of space travel and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He joined the faculty of the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering in 2008. Yannis Yortsos, dean of the Viterbi School, called Ramo “an ideal model for the much-talked-about engineer of the 21st century.”
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