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

  • Company led U.S. efforts in Cold War space race with Soviets
  • Ramo was chief scientist for the U.S. ballistic missile system

Simon Ramo, the scientist, engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded two Fortune 500 companies and was chief scientist for the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile system during the Cold War, has died. He was 103.

He died Monday of natural causes at his home in Santa Monica, California, his son, Jim Ramo, said in an e-mail.

Ramo was the “R” in the company that became aerospace giant TRW Inc., acquired by Northrop Grumman Corp. in 2002. He lent his name as well to an affiliated computer concern that became Bunker Ramo Corp., now part of Honeywell International Inc.

With partner Dean Wooldridge, the “W” of TRW, and backed by Thompson Products -- which would add the “T” when TRW was formed by a 1958 merger -- Ramo helped guide the furious U.S. effort to beat the Soviet Union in a race to develop ICBMs, the long-range missiles meant to deliver nuclear weapons.

‘Critical Task’

TRW “took on the critical task of providing technical support for major Air Force missile programs: Atlas, Titan, Thor and Minuteman,” according to an essay prepared for the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. “In 1958, this firm built America’s first rocket to the Moon, along with its instrumented spacecraft.”

Ramo, in a 2009 book on business forecasting written with Ronald Sugar, said many U.S. companies took part in the ICBM program.

“Surprisingly, however, only one company -- TRW -- predicted that a ‘space race’ would occur and that a space technology industry build-up would follow,” they wrote.

Before turning 30, Ramo was awarded 25 patents, served as concertmaster of a civic orchestra and began his first book. He ultimately wrote about 20 books, including scientific texts and tomes on tennis.

Advised Executives

After retiring as TRW’s vice chairman in 1978, he advised defense industry executives, policy makers and educators.

At 92, he commuted daily to his office in West Hollywood, California, attired in a business suit, and often met younger executives for lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel.

He wrote “Meetings, Meetings and More Meetings: Getting Things Done When People Are Involved,” published in 2005, followed in 2009 by his book co-written with Sugar, “Strategic Business Forecasting: A Structured Approach to Shaping the Future of Your Business.”

In 2010, shortly before his 97th birthday, Ramo wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times arguing that the U.S. should abandon hopes of sending astronauts to Mars and instead consider using robots only to explore space.

“If the goal is to raise ourselves up in the world’s estimation,” he wrote, “there are probably better ways to spend money, such as providing good education for all, speeding up medical research to cure fatal diseases, building plants to desalinate ocean water and boosting clean energy development.”

Family Expectations

Ramo was born May 7, 1913, in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Benjamin Ramo and the former Clara Trestman. His father, who owned a clothing store, had immigrated to the U.S. as a child from Brest, then under Russian rule.

The family had high expectations. Ramo was expected to study law, his older brother, Leon, medicine. Both were required to master the violin, while their sister, Gertrude, took piano lessons.

Ramo said his father encouraged his reading, intellectual pursuits and eventual turn to science.

“The pursuit of truth was what delighted me--the objective of finding out the truth without bias,” Ramo said, according to Shirley Thomas’s “Men of Space,” published in 1961.

At 15 and already in his final year in high school, Ramo decided to gamble his savings on a better violin to compete for prize money and a college scholarship. The gamble paid off. He swept the high school music contests -- and would have lost his savings anyway when his local bank collapsed in the crash of 1929.

Built Confidence

Ramo often mused that without his $325 gamble on the violin, “I would never have had the confidence to launch new companies later,” he wrote in “The Business of Science,” published in 1988.

The violin contest resulted in a full scholarship to any department at the University of Utah. Ramo chose engineering. When he graduated in 1933, his was the highest grade point average of the engineering students, but there were no jobs.

He accepted a fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, where he was required to grapple with new scientific findings instead of burnishing his knowledge of electrical engineering, as he had expected.

“It is like the difference between learning how to pump oil ever more efficiently from an existing well and finding new oil deposits. Cal Tech taught me how to discover oil,” recalled Ramo, who became a life trustee.

Campus Contacts

During his three years on the Pasadena campus, he met Wooldridge, his future business partner.

He also met Virginia May Smith, a student at the University of Southern California. The two were wed July 25, 1937, one year after Ramo earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and physics and joined the prestigious research laboratory of General Electric Co. The marriage produced two sons, Jim and Alan. Virginia Ramo died in 2009.

Ramo landed his GE job with the help of his violin. He was invited to perform at a luncheon when the head of GE visited Cal Tech in 1936 to interview a small number of job applicants.

Startled to receive a job offer, Ramo learned that the civic-minded GE supplied many of the musicians for the symphony orchestra in Schenectady, New York, where its research lab was located. On his first day of work, he was told to report for rehearsals and soon became concertmaster.

Microwave Research

Within a year, Ramo distinguished himself as a GE scientist and was offered the opportunity to engage in research and development of his choosing. He chose high-frequency microwaves, having written his doctoral thesis on the measurement of high-voltage electricity.

“I was not an inventor of the Thomas Edison kind,” Ramo acknowledged in “The Business of Science.” Nonetheless, his work in microwaves and electron microscopy resulted in 25 patents.

By the end of World War II, Ramo was chafing in the GE bureaucracy and wanted to return to California.

“Living in Schenectady between 1936 and 1946 had its advantages, but weather was not one of them,” he recalled.

He was keen to start his own research laboratory, sensing postwar opportunity in defense spending. He correctly anticipated that most U.S. companies would opt to meet postwar demand for consumer goods.

Hughes Aircraft

In April 1946, he accepted an offer to create a high-technology research and development unit at Hughes Aircraft Co. in Culver City, California. Within months, he secured military contracts for designing advanced weaponry and was joined by Wooldridge, who quit Bell Telephone Laboratories.

The new unit enjoyed explosive success and growth. Ramo initially envisioned a staff of 100. Over seven years, the ranks swelled to 3,000 employees because the military pressed Hughes Aircraft to produce and test the products it designed.

Winning Bids

“We did not lose a single competition,” Ramo wrote later, because Hughes typically bid against companies that had deployed their best talent to nonmilitary products.

Ramo and Wooldridge initially enjoyed the absentee ownership of billionaire Howard Hughes, but his mounting eccentricities posed problems.

The Defense Department dropped broad hints that it would welcome a competitor to Hughes Aircraft, or at least a different owner. Ramo and Wooldridge urged Hughes to change the company’s corporate governance, to no avail.

So the two scientists resigned on Sept. 11, 1953, to form the Ramo-Wooldridge Corp., with financial backing from the Thompson Products Co., a Cleveland manufacturer of auto and airplane parts. The company was seven days old when it received a contract to analyze the military’s strategic missile program.

In the face of a Soviet missile buildup, the Air Force soon drafted Ramo-Wooldridge to provide the technical direction and systems engineering for the ICBM program, which Ramo oversaw.

Prescient Decision

As early as 1956, Ramo decided space exploration would become a government priority and asked company lawyers to incorporate an entity to be called Space Technologies Laboratories. It was a prescient move, because the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 spurred a U.S. reaction. TRW won the contract to build the first spacecraft, called Pioneer I.

Ramo stepped away from technical responsibility for projects such as the ICBM after Ramo-Wooldridge merged with Thompson Products in 1958 to form Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, or TRW.

“I wanted to plan the strategy for TRW. I wanted to have the time and energy to figure out what our role should be in the world,” Ramo said in 1989, when he was interviewed for a Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum oral-history project.

Ramo steered TRW into global partnerships. Within a decade, he said, almost one-third of business came from overseas operations.

With financial backing from George Bunker, then chief executive of Martin Marietta, Ramo took over TRW’s nascent computer business, which became the Bunker Ramo Corp. He served as president from 1963 to 1967, when the business was spun off.

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