One doesn’t have to know that Simon Ramo recently celebrated his 97th birthday to know that he might well retire the handle of “Renaissance man.”
All that is plenty for one man to experience in a long life; it only scratches the surface of Si Ramo’s accomplishments. The honors bestowed by presidents and professional peers on Ramo, the R in the name of the pioneering Southern California aerospace company TRW Corp., are too numerous to list.
When I met Ramo for lunch one day recently at a Santa Monica restaurant he frequents near his home, I was hoping to get his views on why our most advanced and complex systems seem to collapse in catastrophic failure. Think of how the marvel of drilling for oil a mile beneath the sea has resulted in ecological and economic disaster. Think of the banking business.
I got that and much more. Ramo’s conversational style is direct, although a man once renowned for detesting meetings wasted on small talk is now perhaps a bit more given to reminiscence than he used to be. When he wants to stress an important point he furrows his brow and narrows his glare, so you think you’re staring into the eyes of an eagle.
Ramo has an engineer’s feel for how the potentialities of technology are invariably balanced by its limitations. What he imparted to me during our hours together was the recognition that you can’t hope to extract a bounty from technological progress without expecting to encounter failure along the way; the key is to not be surprised by failure, but to be prepared to learn from it.
This is a philosophy that leads him down roads that may surprise many people. He’s a firm advocate of nuclear energy, contending that the American public and policymakers aren’t aware of how safe it has become, thanks to technological advances. But he’s also opposed to sending men to Mars, a project President Obama unveiled in March.
Ramo thinks the latter is sure to cost unnecessary lives in an effort tailor-made for robot explorers. “Obama can’t announce that man-in-space is out of date because of the political consequences,” he told me, resignedly. “Senators and congressmen from Florida, Texas and Alabama (centers of space-program jobs) would give him so much trouble he can’t cancel it.”
Ramo has been a fixture of this community’s industrial and civic life since he returned from a wartime sojourn at General Electric’s headquarters in Schenectady, N.Y., to live in Southern California. He had received his doctorate from Caltech in 1936.
A Salt Lake City native whose family traces its history to Jewish “conversos,” who converted to Christianity in Inquisition-era Spain, he has served in trusteeships at Caltech and the California State University, and sat on the boards of the L.A. Philharmonic and the Music Center, Atlantic Richfield Co. and Times Mirror (which until 2000 was owner of The Times).
It’s a reflection of Ramo’s modesty that he attributes much of his rise to the summit of the R&D industry to luck.
It was lucky, he wrote in his 1988 book “The Business of Science,” that he was an accomplished amateur musician, because the General Electric recruiter who stopped by Caltech in the Depression year of 1936 was also looking for a violinist for the Schenectady symphony.
It was lucky that GE hadn’t hired a lot of young engineers during the war, because that gave the green Ramo a chance to stand out. It was lucky that he settled on microwaves as his research field, because their chief application in wartime turned out to be the indispensable technology of radar.
“The secret of my success was that I was in the right place at the right time,” he says.
In truth, he put himself in the right places. At war’s end he understood that military R&D would get short shrift from GE and other big industrial firms, which were hankering to pile into the postwar consumer market. He felt it was a matter of time before the Soviet Union got the A-bomb, which would spur demand for aircraft guidance systems that built upon radar.
He landed at Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, then a small outpost of Howard Hughes’ industrial empire. The company’s drawback was that it was owned by an eccentric. Its virtue was that the eccentric almost never came around. The Pentagon was uneasy with Hughes but comfortable with Ramo, whose R&D unit specialized in airborne communications, computers and guided missiles.
“Hughes Aircraft was owned by a peculiar guy who couldn’t be cleared for secrets, so he wouldn’t know what was going on,” he told me. “That was exactly what I wanted.”
But by 1950, Hughes’ increasingly bizarre decision-making was undermining the division Ramo had built with his friend and Caltech classmate Dean Wooldridge.
Ramo and Wooldridge resigned together in 1953. Their unit had grown from a small handful of employees to 3,000 engineers and scientists.
Their next step was to found their own company, which would build the intercontinental ballistic missile and become a major participant in the space project. TRW merged with Northrop Grumman Corp. in 2002.
Throughout his career, Ramo refined the concept of systems engineering, which he defines as the art of engineering complicated arrangements so the failure of one element — information, communications, apparatus, or human beings — won’t destroy the whole.
Even if every element is engineered to the utmost reliability, he teaches, “you have to expect failure of a new complicated system — part of the process of getting it right is to find out what goes wrong and cure that.”
Some of the cases we talked about look like quintessential failures of systems engineering. Of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he says “it’s pathetic, sad, ridiculous to not have proper plans properly worked out.” Though he cautions that he is “not handicapped by any experience” in oil drilling, he conjectures that “systems engineering didn’t have a high priority, and risks were taken that were greater than they should be.”
Today, Ramo keeps busy producing a steady stream of papers and op-eds on technological issues of the day.
Among the ideas embraced in a sheaf of articles he showed me were a small, highly efficient car for family errands and urban commuting to replace the wasteful behemoths that are so big and inefficient for the mundane uses they’re put to today. His skeptical analysis of the Mars project, which ran as an opinion piece in The Times on April 26, was an elaboration of his misgivings about the risks of the original space project and the shuttle to astronauts.
He left me with no doubt that he’ll be continuing to offer his counsel as an elder statesman of high tech with an ever youthful outlook. Or as he put it in his book more than 20 years ago, “it pays to look both back and ahead.”
Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at https://www.latimes.com/hiltzik, check out https://www.facebook.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.