Simon Ramo, Giant

Simon Ramo 
Simon Ramo Simon "Si" RamoGrey Separation Bar

The story of the Cold War played out in decades of geopolitical brinksmanship and maneuvering. But the Cold War was also a story of competing technologies and their innovators – people who struggled to acquire and maintain for their respective sides the advantages of technology. The genius of these individuals enabled "Cold" brinksmanship to displace the hot "War" in which so many of them came of age. America and the West prevailed in that struggle and anyone grateful for that outcome must also be grateful for Si Ramo and people like him.

Ramo was a Zelig figure – present during so many of the Cold War's most important technological milestones. Instrumental for decades in the development of many of the era’s most iconic technologies; consultant to presidents, legislators, national security figures and government departments, Ramo seemed to be everywhere working on everything with everyone.

Dean Wooldridge with Simon Ramo featured on the April 29, 1957 cover of Time Magazine Dean Wooldridge (left) with Simon Ramo featured on the April 29, 1957 cover of Time Magazine.
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Against his body of accomplishments, his humble origins were classically American. Born to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, Ramo entered the world in 1913 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where his parents owned a clothing store. By his 23rd year, Ramo had earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and physics from Caltech. Upon leaving that institution, his first stop was General Electric where he helped develop the electron microscope and subsequently many of the electronic systems developed for and during America's war effort.

With the end of WWII and the dawn of the Cold War, Ramo moved to Hughes Aircraft Corporation and established that company's military electronics division. But by 1953 Ramo had left Hughes to form his own company with his partner, Dean Wooldridge, which they eponymously named Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation (five years later, upon merging with Thompson Products, the company was renamed TRW). The new company got off to an auspicious start when President Dwight Eisenhower personally phoned Ramo to ask him to turn his new company – at the time based in a former barbershop – to the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the other side of the globe in less than an hour. In offering Ramo the job Eisenhower bypassed the large and established aerospace corporations, but such were the reputations of Ramo and his team after their innovations in defense electronics and guidance systems.

The move paid off and the Thor and Atlas missiles were born, although the labor pains were significant. Indeed during one catastrophic test launch, Ramo displayed the wit and optimism for which he would become known. When the test missile rose mere inches off the launch pad before exploding, Ramo turned to Air Force General Bernard Schreiver and said: "Well, Benny, now that we know the thing can fly, all we have to do is improve its range a bit."

President Ronald Reagan awarding Simon Ramo with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Ronald Reagan awarding Simon Ramo with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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By the time of his death at 103, Ramo had developed scores of defense technologies, authored or co-authored 62 books (including one university text book, Fields and Waves in Communication Electronics, that has sold over one million copies), fathered the discipline of systems engineering, fathered Redondo Beach, California, as an aerospace center, had been awarded scores of patents (including his last at the age of 100), and had received innumerable awards and recognitions including the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and an achievement award named in his honor by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

A Zelig figure to be sure, but also a renaissance man, Si Ramo was a giant of science, engineering, original thinking, and what we now call the defense industrial base. In sum, he was instrumental in the West's victory during a Cold War we today often forget was the existential struggle it was.

The visionaries, designers and inventors of the submarine, the machine gun, the battleship, the heavy bomber among others, all contended that their innovations would prove so terrible in their use that they would guarantee the obsolescence of war. Only nuclear weapons have come close to living up to that counterintuitive promise, and only after being engineered into a system of weapon, rocket and guidance technologies. Si Ramo was perhaps the figure most central to that achievement. He was a giant.

Related stories honoring Mr. Ramo:

In Memoriam: Simon Ramo – An Extraordinary Life – Aerospace Giant and Co-Founder of TRW

Simon Ramo dies at 103; TRW co-founder shaped California aerospace (Los Angeles Times)

Simon Ramo, Aerospace Leader Who Put ‘R’ in TRW, Dies at 103 (Bloomberg)

Simon Ramo, 1913-2016: Aerospace pioneer and ICBM chief architect was the ‘R’ in TRW (Daily Breeze)

In memoriam: Simon Ramo, 103 (USC News)

Photo credits: Northrop Grumman archives.