Los Angeles — Fire and thunder roared like molten anger from the snout of an enraged dragon. America's first ballistic missile, aptly named Thor, had just unleashed 160,000 pounds of thrust onto its launching pad. On this weapon hinged the success or failure of what was then the country's most ambitious engineering program. Thor lifted slowly off the pad, inch by inch, until it hovered about a foof off the ground. Then it sank back down and exploded.
Inside launch headquarters, Si Ramo turned to a companion and commented drily: "Well, at least we know it can fly. Now all we have to do is improve the range."
At the time, the late 1950s, Simon Ramo was one of only a handful of people in the US qualified to comment on the Thor or any other ballistic missile, and he, with characteristic wit, put the failure into perspective as a minor, temporary setback.
The Thor missile was, in effect, his baby. He had done a great deal to nurse it along -- from concept to drawing board to construction and eventually to test launch. Certainly no single man shouldered that entire responsibility, but one company did, and Dr. Ramo was co-founder of it: the Ramo-Wooldridge Company (R-W) of Los Angeles.
R-W served as the technological boss for the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program from 1954 to around 1960, a program that included not only the Thor but the bigger Atlas and Titan, capable of reaching the Soviet Union within minutes from launch sites in the US. It was he largest technological program in history, and by far the most urgent.
In 1953, US intelligence concluded to its dismay that the Soviet Union had mounted an all-out effort to develop nuclear missiles. Since the US at the time was relying entirely on manned bombers to carry its A-bombs, "we were in the position of getting hit by a first strike before our forces could even get near the Soviet Union," recalls Dr. Ramo in an interview. "It meant that we would have no deterrent force at all."
In a flash, the US entered the missile race with its ICBM program. The White House and Pentagon outlined policy, but the fledgling R- W, with its offices in an abandoned church and 30 engineers on its payroll, called the technological shots, supervising every stage from planning through launching. Some 200 contractors and some 200,000 subcontractors were working on the project, but for security reasons no one (except R-W and Washington) knew what the others were up to.
The company grew with the program, adding a "T" to its name along the way to become TRW, Inc. (The "T" came from the Thompson auto parts company in Cleveland, Ohio, which first became involved as the company's financial backer and eventually merged with R-W). Today TRW makes parts for everything from autos to spacecraft, with annual sales that exceed $2.5 billion.
When people introduce Dr. Ramo as a speaker or just talk about him, they almost always refer to him as the "R" of TRW. It attracts attention. After all , no one can claim to be the "B" in IBM or the "T" in AT&T.
Visitors to Dr. Ramo's private office in Beverly Hills are usually ushered immediately to the large window behind his expansive desk. "Before we do anything, you have to take a look at my view," he says. From the 20th story one can gaze down on the green velvet of the Los Angeles Country Club. Dr. Ramo claims he can watch golf balls floating through the air for the first nine holes.
It is difficult, however, to imagine him indulging in so languid a pastime as daydreaming out of an office window. His use of time is highly methodical and efficient. "Si doesn't really have spare time the way most people think of it," comments an associate. "He doesn't split his time into nonproductive and productive periods. He is always productive."
When he speaks Dr. Ramo spends his words frugally. He talks in gentle, but measured tones, with precision.
He accepts speaking engagements and travels often these days, not to promote TRW but to point out the need for what he feels are highly specialized solutions to some of America's problems.
The ICBM program not only catapulted the US into the arms face but hurled it fullblown into the age of electronics and computers, pushing science ahead by quantum leaps and establishing the US as the world's technological leader. But now that leadership is lost says Dr., and that loss figures heavily in the country's energy and economic problems. For instance:
* US productivity has sunk to an all-time low. From the mid-1940s to the mid-'60s US productivity grew at over 3 percent per year. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s the rate dropped to about 2 percent and then sank further to 1 percent in the last half of the '70s. It hovers now at about zero. The US now ranks last among the world's industrialized nations in annual rate of productivity growth, compared to the 1950s and '60s, when it ranked first.
In the mid-'60s, it took 12 1/2 man-hours to produce a ton of steel in a US steel mill, compared to 25 man-hours in a Japanese mill. By the mid-'70s, the US had reduced the figure to 10 hours, but Japan had cut it to 9 hours.
* Both West Germany and Japan import a far higher proportion of their energy than does the US, yet both countries manage to maintain a favorable balance of trade. The US does not.
"We spend 2 1/2 times as much on buying machinery and goods from the rest of the world as we spend on importing oil," says Dr. Ramo. "Most people don't know that. We are no longer as good, apparently, at taking energy and raw materials and turning them into machinery . . . . Last year we spent $10 billion more for autos from the outside than we sent out in auto exports.
* "It's a signal that over the period of a decade or more we had billions of dollars raised in the stock market for small new companies. In the mid-'60s, 400 to 500 such new issues came out each year. The level got down in the '70s to where around four were coming out each year, although the situation is a little better now."
"America's technology slip is showing," he says, and the reasons are not overly mysterious.
In his opinion, the principal villain is excessive governmental regulation. The blossoming of regulatory agencies over the last 15 years means that 50 percent of a company's research and development funds are spent on administration. "It used to be that you spent 90 percent on research and 10 percent on administration," he says. "It takes away the incentive for small companies to pursue new technology."
He also feels that, in addition to the shortage of research and development money, not enough of what does exist goes into the production of basic, exportable products. "Our engineering schools are really no longer engineering shcools, but applied physics centers. We don't teach grubby, mundane engineering -- how to design something that is cheap yet reliable. That's awfully boring stuff, and everybody goes for the new exotic fields: lasers, semi-conductors.
"Japan and Germany are licking the pants off us in ordinary engineering. They can design sewing machines and cameras. The same thing applies to electronics -- tape recorders, radios, TVs -- and machinery. If you want to buy a machine that makes paper, for example, you're going to buy it out of the country. We have to improve that."
The overall problem in the US, says Dr. Ramo, is poor management of America's ability to apply science and technology to its problems. "It shows a lack of understanding of how to organize an assign roles to government. We have a hybrid society where that must be done. We are not a totally capitalistic, free-enterprise society and never have been. By teh same token we do not have a totally government-controlled economy. We are a mixture. The name of the game is to assign the correct roles to each."
The correct role for the business sector, he feels, is to generate technology. The government, on the other hand, "must be in the negative business -- a primary contributor to understanding the drawbacks of those technologies. Then the government has to decide the value of the trade-offs between the positives and the negatives."
He cites the automobile industry as an example of the way things should not work: "It was a typical example of free enterprise for the last decade or two. The new factors, however, -- a gasoline shortage, pollution, and [improved] safety -- make auto regulation a national issue that cannot be controlled by the free market alone. The government has been the one to worry about the standards , but the government has not been in the trade-off business and has responded, instead, to political considerations. It has handed down regulations without considering their impact on the auto industry's cash flow and investment policies. The result is that the third largest company [Chrysler] faces bankruptcy."
A systems engineer, looking at the fragmented pieces and deciding how they should fit together, could help solve this problem, he feels. "The trade-off decisions, the balances [that should be made] by the federal government are almost non-existent. In trying to get the positive -- fewer accidents, lower gas consumption, and cleaner air, -- the government has created a negative [ effect on] the economy."
To the oft-asked question, "If we can send a man to the moon why can't we solve the energy crisis, clean up the air, build a car that lasts?" etc., etc., Dr. Ramo responds that "we can."
His colleague from the early ICBM days, Air Force Gen. (Ret.) Bernard Schriever, commander of the ICBM program, adds that the nation surmounted an even stickier technological problem than space rocketry in building ballistic missiles from scratch in only three years.
The difference between then and now, Gen. Schriever speculates, is a current lack of national commitment and incentive. "There was a tremendous sense of urgency surrounding the ICBM program. Si attracted most of the top-engineering talent. It was just tremendously exciting . . . . This energy crisis, though, doesn't have that, because it gets lost in politics."
Dr. Ramo feels that a major obstacle to regaining technological superiority is an "anti-technology" feeling, the gnawing uneasiness people have that as technology grows more complex it gets increasingly out of control.
Dr. Ramo predicts that anxiety will pass with the next decade. "I think we will learn the right way of doing things by doing them the wrong way. I would say that over the next decade, we are going to straighten out a large number of these organizational deficits. They are so bad that everybody will gradually realize they are bad."
Specifically Dr. Ramo thinks a strong technological representation in the White House is desperately needed. The Office of Science and Technology "has not been as important in influencing White House policy as we had hoped. We never thought of that office as one ready to answer questions if anyone asks or as an office to push pure science . . . , but rather that the important issues of energy, inflation, and economic competitiveness should involve the ingredient of scientific expertise, just the way they involve . . . other fields of expertise. . . .
"We have to be willing to decentralize, to delegate authority to a small handful of people . . . in the same way that we give a small number of people control over the fiscal policies of this country."
Perhaps Dr. Ramo is so sensitive to this lack of organization because of the way he organizes his own life. The running of his schedule makes the Swiss watch look fumble-fingered. When he says that he spends 75 percent of his time working, you know that is exactly correct.
Several years ago, he felt uneasy about the line he spent drying dishes, so he dictated a book to his wife while finishing up the pots and pands and salad bowls. Dr. Ramo plays tennis every Sunday from 3 o'clock to 4 o'clock and not only wrote a best-selling book about applying systems-engineering to the sport -- "Extraordinary Tennis for the Ordinary Player" -- but but dictated a novel during the 30 to 40 minutes before each game.
He sits on the boards of numerous corporations and philanthropic organizations, yet finds the time to listen to TRW people who think they have good ideas but cannot attract the attention of company executives. Even though he retired in 1978 from the post of vice chairman of the company's board of directors, he stills serves as a consultant to the company and chairs its Science and Technology Committee.
The events that led Dr. Ramo to his career show no signs of the planning that characterizes his daily life, however. He grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was a child prodigy with all the makings of a virtuoso violinist. But mathematics, not music, proved to be the thing that sparked his interest. He studied engineering at the University of Utah.
He graduated when the depression was just settling in, "and since there weren't any jobs to be had, I decided to get my Ph.D," he says. The country was overrun with engineers, so he shifted focus to what he terms the "new physics, the sort of thing they were teaching at Cal Tech [California institute of Techonology].
His violin still came in handy. Cal Tech President Robert Millikan would drag Si Ramo and his instrument around to teas at the homes of wealthy Los Angeles dowagers. "He wanted to show them that Cal Tech emphasized the whole man, and not just science. Of course, the fact that I could play the violin had nothing to do with Cal Tech. In fact, I didn't even have time to practice, but it seemed to do the trick."
The depression was still grinding away, when Si Ramo was able to put a "Dr." in front of his name, and engineers were still a dime a dozen. ("Actually, it was more like two cents a dozen," he comments.) But one company, General Electric, had decided as a matter of policy to hire one or two engineers to keep its fingers in the pie.
Dr. Ramo, like several hundred others, applied for the job, but not very hopefully. GE did not like hiring Ph.D's. They just had to be retrained. The company did, however, pride itself on its civic-mindedness, and when Cal Tech President Miliken let the GE personnel managere know that Si Ramo could fiddle with the best of them, Dr. Ramo landed the job -- with the understanding that he would also play with the local (Schenectady, N.Y.) symphony orchestra.
"New science" was the wave of the future -- and though GE may not have realized it then, Dr. Ramo did. He participated in the company's research on microwaves -- the extremely high frequencies that make radar and advance communications possible -- and developed the GE electron microscope.
By the time he was 30, Dr. Ramo had registered 24 patents.
In 1946, he moved back to California as research director of a 10-man electronic section at Hughes Aircraft Company. His team engineered important breakthroughs in electronic guidance and firing systems for missiles.
The Korean war brought so many work orders that the Hughes company grew into an electronic giant, the nation's largest, and Dr. Ramo rode the crest of the wave, as missiles grew more and more important.
He and his colleague, Dean Woodridge, broke with Hughes in 1953, largely out of frustration with their boss's eccentricities, and set up their own company. Right about then the government was looking for a company to oversee its urgent, top-secret ICBM program. The fledging Ramo-Wooldridge got the job.
Aside from his work at TRW, Dr. Ramo's holds a number of other positions; he is a visiting faculty member at several universities, including Stanford and Harvard, and is a founding member of the National Academy of Engineering and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is a consultant to the White House's Office of Science and Technology. He also has as many awards and honors as a Latin general boasts medals. The latest is the National Science Award, the country's highest science award, soon to be given him by President Carter in a White House ceremony.
Dr. Ramo still plays the violin.Every Saturday, a quartet meets at his house in Beverly Hills for some chamber music. "I call it the Pro and Con Quartet," Dr. Ramo says, "because it consists of two amateur musicians who have conned two professionals to sit in with them."
Often one of the professionals is violinist Jascha Heifetz, who sometimes plays second violin -- a rare experience for him. Dr. Ramo has been known to remark with a twinkle in his eye, that Heifetz would make a first-class second violinist.
The twinkle rapidly disappears, though, when the conversation turns back to the US playing second fiddle in technology innovation. As long as the country imports more technology than it exports, he says, prospects for the economy will continue to dim. As long as government continues to meddle in affairs best left to the business sector, business will not be able to do its job.
Government and business should be co- partners on certain projects, he says, those too complex and too costly for a private undertaking -- the extraction of synthetic fuels from coal, urban mass transit, and depollution of major cities and waterways, for example. In other areas, however, government should leave technology to business, an approach to federal bureaucracy now discourages through overregulation and the capital gains tax.
Of every dollar earned by the average corporation, 60 cents goes to taxes (higher than the normal rates because inflation causes earnings to be overstated) and 20 cents goes to replacement of facility (because the IRS does not allow deductions for the full cost of depreciation), and 15 cents to shareholders for their dividends, "and you have five cents left for product development, increasing productivity, and conforming with safety and environmental rules. that doesn't give a company much incentive to take the risk of developing new products," says Dr. Ramo.
Among Dr. Ramo's suggestions for a clearer definition of government and business roles, the elimination of capital gains tax ranks high.
The rest is not so simple. He admits that incorporating his ideas into the political structure is largely a matter of time and education, the latter on the part of both the people and those they elect.
"That is why I am writing this book [tentatively titled "The Battle for Technological Superiority] and why I give talks on the subject. . . .
"It really does not take that much. For example, when Rocky [Nelson Rockefeller] went in as Vice President, he looked around and said, 'What, a technological society such as ours without a science and technological presence in the White House?' (President Nixon had fired his science advisory committee over politics.) And he worked out bills with Congress for an Office of Science and Technology. So, you see, all it really took was one man being aware of what was needed."
"There are enough people saying the same sorts of things that I am saying so that the message will eventually get across, I think."