33.

MARSHALING THE EXPERTISE

In directing the committee’s work, it soon became apparent to Gardner that the big aircraft companies, whose colossal production of flying machines had won the skies of the Second World War, were incapable by themselves of meeting the demands of the missile age. They lacked the scientific and engineering talent to chart the unknown and untie the myriad technical knots involved in creating an ICBM. There was, for example, the reentry problem. Once the missile had been launched and the warhead containing the hydrogen bomb was hurtling through the vacuum of space, how was one to bring the warhead back down without burning it up from friction when it struck the resistant air of the earth’s atmosphere? The major aircraft manufacturers were also unlikely to acquire the talent they needed by recruiting the best graduates of the technical schools, particularly the California universities. The management of these old-line firms was too conventional, the atmosphere too stultifying, to attract these young minds seeking technological adventure. In short, the United States had an aircraft industry, but the nation was yet to acquire an aerospace industry. To get the ICBM built, Gardner would have to find the genesis of one.

He encountered what he was seeking in Culver City, California, in a firm owned by Howard Hughes, the exceedingly neurotic and reclusive multimillionaire. Hughes Aircraft Company was a subsidiary of Hughes Tool, the main source of drilling equipment for America’s oil fields, which Howard Hughes had inherited from his father when he was just eighteen years old. He rarely appeared at his Culver City property, knew little of what went on there, and understood less. Hughes Aircraft had been transformed into something quite different from an ordinary aircraft company by two men, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, who were to become immensely wealthy princes of the American military-industrial complex as co-founders of one of its preeminent firms, TRW, Inc. And the ICBM project, for which Ramo was to serve as Bennie Schriever’s chief technical director and engineer, was to launch them.

Simon Ramo was a technological entrepreneur. He had an eye for the main chance of the future and understood how to exploit it. A trim man of medium height with dark hair and angular features, Ramo had one of those effervescent minds that are never still. He was born in 1913 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Ukraine who ran a small store. His parents encouraged their children in both education and the arts. Salt Lake City was then a center of culture in the West with its own opera company, ballet corps, symphony orchestra, and the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Ramo, whose brilliance at mathematics and science sent him skipping grades through school, also became an accomplished amateur violinist.

Family funds for higher education were limited. In 1929, a senior in high school intent on entering the University of Utah that fall to study electrical engineering, Ramo engaged in his first risk taking based, as he later wrote in an autobiography, “on cool calculation.” If he could walk off the stage with most or all of the prizes in a forthcoming interstate music contest, he could claim a full scholarship to the university and a considerable amount of cash. Otherwise, he faced the drudgery of four years of after-school work to get through. He reasoned that he had sound hope of winning because of his skill with the violin, but that he would measurably improve his chances if he invested in an instrument with much better sound quality than the rudimentary $25 Japanese model he was playing. Withdrawing all his savings from the bank, he bought an Italian violin for $325. He swept the contest and took his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1933, the youngest in his class by two years, and with the highest grade point average. Had he left his money in the savings account he would have lost it, as the bank collapsed in October 1929 right after the stock market crash. As with so many other college graduates in 1933, there was no employment to be had in the midst of the Depression. His scholastic attainment, however, gained him a graduate fellowship to Caltech in Pasadena, where he received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and physics in 1936 with high honors.

His Italian fiddle now got him a job. When the General Electric Company recruiter came out to Caltech that spring of 1936, Ramo did not expect to be hired. The country was still in the trough of the Depression and there were too many other qualified candidates in California for the handful of positions the recruiter would be able to offer. Robert Millikan, the Nobel Laureate in physics and friend of Hap Arnold who was president of Caltech at the time, had Ramo play a couple of violin selections at a lunch he gave for the GE recruiter prior to an afternoon round of interviews. Ramo had performed uncomfortably, believing the performance would hurt his already meager prospects; the recruiter would regard him not as a sound and pragmatic engineer but rather as a dreamy musician. At his turn for an interview, Ramo had hardly sat down before the recruiter told him that there was a symphony orchestra in Schenectady, the upstate New York city where GE’s main facilities were located, that the company was the orchestra’s principal sponsor, and that most of its members were GE employees. “Ramo, you will enjoy the orchestra,” the recruiter said. Ramo was puzzled at the remark and then surprised as the recruiter consulted a notebook and gave him a date to report for work that August at the firm’s General Engineering Laboratory. On his first day at the laboratory, the conductor of the Schenectady Symphony phoned to tell him the time and place of the orchestra’s next rehearsal. It turned out that with so many engineers of prowess to choose from, the recruiter had taken Millikan’s bait and decided he might as well have a violinist in the bargain. And he chose well, as Ramo became the orchestra’s first violinist, or concertmaster.

Ramo was thrilled to be assigned to research and development in the then virginal field of electronics, but disappointed to discover that General Electric’s laboratories were not the powerhouses of pioneering electrical science they were reputed to be. Some of his research in generating high-frequency electromagnetic waves that are the basis of radar brought him to the attention of the U.S. Navy. Nothing came of his work, however. To his chagrin, British scientists had already accomplished the same research independently and were applying it to their radars. Near the beginning of the war, he also made the mistake of declining an invitation to push aggressively the frontiers of radar by going on a leave of absence from GE and joining the staff of a laboratory forming at MIT in Cambridge under the distinguished Cornell and University of Wisconsin physicist Lee DuBridge. He let the director of his laboratory in Schenectady talk him out of accepting with the argument that this laboratory of “professors” would never amount to anything. The important research in radar would be done at major institutions like GE, the director said, and Ramo should stay where he was, positioned to accomplish the maximum. He stayed and he accomplished the minimum, missing his opportunity to become one of the heroes of the MIT Rad Lab, renowned for their wartime achievements in radar. General Electric’s contribution to the war effort was its cornucopia of equipment for the armed forces. Its laboratories provided no innovation of consequence to military technology. The pattern held, in general, for the other big corporations. The corporations produced and wartime innovations came from the academics gathered into high-spirited, fertile-minded communities like the Rad Lab and the atomic bomb laboratory at Los Alamos. Too late, Ramo realized that the men who ran GE’s laboratories had become unimaginative bureaucrats, comfortable in their positions, content in their outmoded ways.

By the end of the war, he was determined to leave as soon as he could. In addition to his professional discontent, Ramo was suffering from an ailment he described as “Californiaitis.” So was his wife, the former Virginia Smith, an Easterner by birth who had gone to college in California, where she and Ramo had met and married. After the chill of nine upstate New York winters in Schenectady, they wanted to feel the sun of Southern California again. His eye for the main chance had also given Ramo an insight into the future that he hoped would enable him to start a company of his own in California. He foresaw the military consequences of the bipolar world that emerged from the Second World War. The alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union would not survive for long. The societies were too different, there was too much potential for rivalry and conflict, he reasoned. As soon as American airmen perceived the Soviet Union as a future opponent, they would seek means to defend the United States against the long-range bombers they would assume the Soviets would build. (In fact, they already had. Planners within the U.S. Army Air Forces had singled out the Soviet air force as a postwar rival as early as 1944.)

In the jet age that had arrived in the skies over Germany in the fall of 1944 with the appearance of the Messerschmitt 262, the world’s first jet fighter, machine guns and fast-firing aerial cannon were also being rendered obsolete. Intercepting fighters would need air-to-air guided missiles to knock down fast, jet-powered bombers. The interceptors would also need radars and fire-control computers compact enough to fit into a cockpit, yet powerful enough to lock onto the bombers at night and in foul weather and send the missiles flashing to their targets. On the ground, the air defense system would require better long-range warning radars and advanced communications in order to detect the bombers while they were still far out and direct the fighters toward them. Unlike Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who had headed the Manhattan Project, Ramo also did not believe it would take the Soviet Union twenty years to acquire its own atomic bomb. He suspected that a few years would suffice to end the American monopoly. And when that first Russian bomb did explode, American air defense preparations would accelerate feverishly. Billions would be spent to create a continent-wide network. A company in position to provide technology for this system could profit most handsomely. But where was Ramo to find the millions to start such a firm?

In early 1946, while on an assignment in Southern California for GE, he ran into some men who said they were working at what they described as the “hobby shop” of Howard Hughes, an aircraft organization recently set up with capital from Hughes Tool. They persuaded Ramo to come over to Culver City for a look. What he found hardly merited the term “organization.” Hughes Aircraft had a general manager, but he was an accountant who existed mainly to sign checks. Yet enough money to keep things together did flow in from Houston, where Hughes Tool had its headquarters, and the people employed at Culver City seemed to have a free hand to be creative. Rather than struggling to raise money on his own, Ramo decided he could instead use this place as a base on which to start. That April of 1946 he said goodbye to frosty Schenectady and arrived in Culver City to establish a center for high-technology military research and development.

His original plan had been to keep the enterprise small, at about a hundred physicists and engineers skilled in a spectrum of disciplines. They would furnish the military with innovative concepts, research, and information, but not hardware. The furthest they would venture would be hand-built prototypes. When the time came to actually go into production, they would farm out the task to one of the large and established firms. The plan didn’t work. Ramo had been more perspicacious than he realized in foreseeing the military consequences of the bipolar postwar world. As relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorated, the demands of the military for air defense grew apace.

He acquired a partner in the summer of 1946, a classmate and close friend from Caltech, Dean Wooldridge, who was to become the W in TRW, Inc. A physicist, Wooldridge had grown up in Oklahoma, the son of an independent oil broker. He had graduated from high school at the age of fourteen, taken the University of Oklahoma at Norman in his stride, and moved on to Caltech, where he had been granted his Ph.D. summa cum laude. He quit a job at the prestigious Bell Telephone Laboratories to join Ramo. The two men were contrasting types. Both were spare-time musicians, but Wooldridge, a tranquil, introspective man, relaxed by playing not a lively instrument like the violin, but the organ. The ebullient Ramo’s other extracurricular passion was tennis. But they complemented each other. Wooldridge’s strength lay in the business and administrative side, while Ramo oversaw the research and engineering. Together, they recruited hundreds more of the technologically adept to staff their operation. There was no shortage of candidates. Ramo had suspected correctly that a lot of the nonacademic technical experts who emerged from the universities early enough to serve their apprenticeship on exciting wartime projects would prefer to continue pursuing the challenge of military innovation rather than turn to less interesting civilian work. There was also no difficulty recruiting many of the best postwar graduates of California’s technologically strong universities. In these immediate postwar years, long before the Vietnam conflict, there was no stigma attached to employment in military industry.

When the Soviet Union exploded its own atomic bomb on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Soviet Central Asia on August 29, 1949, the money spigot turned into a fire hose. After SAC, air defense was now the major preoccupation of the U.S. Air Force. And the electronics section of Hughes Aircraft under Ramo and Wooldridge became the Air Force’s preponderant source by far for air defense equipment. Virtually every first-line jet interceptor in the new Air Defense Command’s squadrons was equipped with a Hughes airborne radar and fire-control computer. Ramo and Wooldridge discovered that they could not farm out their prototypes for production by one of the major aircraft firms. The older companies, ensconced in their Second World War-era ways, either would not or could not retool and reorganize a production facility fast enough to meet Air Force deadlines.

Ramo and Wooldridge tore down unused airplane hangars on the Hughes property at Culver City, erected factories of their own, and hired and trained a labor force. Their organization was so proficient that it never lost a competition for a contract. Ramo emphasized a relatively new concept known as systems engineering, which he defined as “the discipline of the design of the whole, to realize a harmonious and effective ensemble, as distinct from the design of the parts.” What he meant in layman’s English was to design everything in advance with the end result in mind, so that when the individual parts were put together the whole would function smoothly. There might well be, of course, the usual malfunctions when the weapon was tested because the engineers had overlooked or not foreseen something, but the objective was to anticipate and eliminate as many of these bugs as possible beforehand.

The Falcon, the Air Force’s first air-to-air guided missile, was an example of systems engineering and perhaps Ramo’s finest achievement of these early years. The missile was a sleek six-and-a-half-foot-long aluminum tube, six and a half inches in diameter, with a rounded radar guidance device at the nose, seven pounds of high-explosive warhead tucked underneath, and three stabilizer fins that emerged at midsection and flared out wide as they swept back to the tail, where the rocket motor was located. It had originated in a contract Ramo won from Wright Field in 1947 for a study of air-to-air missiles. The initial flight test in 1950 was a complete success. Two missiles were launched by an interceptor plane and each struck and destroyed one of two drones, remotely controlled aircraft, being used to simulate a pair of approaching Soviet bombers. The Falcon itself, however, was only a part of the weapon or, to use the proper and more accurate term, the weapon system. The airborne radar and the fire-control computer in the interceptor were of equal importance. When the interceptor drew within the five-mile range of the missile, the radar “painted” the bomber with its electromagnetic waves and “locked on.” The fire-control computer connected to the radar automatically calculated converging speed and angle. At the most opportune moment, the computer then ignited the missile’s rocket engine. As the Falcon streaked toward the bomber at two to three times the speed of sound, the guidance node in its tip picked up the impulses from the radar in the interceptor and held the missile true to course. In the perspective of microcircuitry and the miracles of electronics to come by the turn of the century, the Falcon system was primitive, but by 1953, when Trevor Gardner came calling at Hughes Aircraft, it was state-of-the-art indeed. The modest research and development center Ramo had set out to create in 1946 had also by then been grown by him and Dean Wooldridge into a high-technology powerhouse, with 3,000 employees and $200 million in business annually, an enviable sum in those years.

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