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Oral-History:Simon Ramo

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About Simon Ramo

Simon Ramo grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah in the 1910s and 1920s. His parents had both emigrated from Eastern Europe, and his father owned a store in Utah. In 1929, Ramo won a music scholarship to the University of Utah, where he majored in engineering. Unavailability of jobs persuaded him to pursue post-graduate studies at Caltech, where he won a scholarship. He finished his degree in three years, writing a thesis on accurate measurements of high voltage. In 1936, he took a job at General Electric in Schenectady, NY to work in the new field of microwaves, first in the engineering lab and then in the GE research lab. While at GE he taught a series of courses on electricity and magnetism theory. Out of these lectures came his textbook, Fields and Waves, now in its fifth edition. During the war, he worked on radar. After the war, he moved to Hughes Aircraft where he worked on guided missile systems.


The interview begins with a discussion of the need for managers to have some technical knowledge. Then it shifts to a description of Ramo's childhood in Utah, his family's recent background in Eastern Europe and distant background in Spain. Ramo then turns to his undergraduate education in music and engineering at the University of Utah during the depression and his subsequent post-graduate work at Caltech. He describes faculty and courses there as well as his own doctoral work on accurate measurement of high voltage. He then moves on to his work in the new field of microwaves at GE and explains that during the war he, along with many others, turned his knowledge to developing radar. He discusses his move west to Hughes Aircraft to work on guided missile systems. He explains the origins of his textbook, Fields and Waves, now in its fifth edition. He describes his involvement with AIEE, IRE, and IEEE. The interview concludes with his thoughts on the proper role of the IEEE and the need for engineers to understand the relationship between science and society.

About the Interview

SIMON RAMO:An Interview Conducted by Frederik Nebeker, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 27 February 1995


Interview #244 for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey


Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, Rutgers - the State University, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Simon Ramo, Electrical Engineer, an oral history conducted in 1996 by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


Interview

Interview:Simon Ramo

Interviewer:Frederik Nebeker
Date:February 27, 1996
Place: Beverly Hills, California



Nebeker:
Talking with Simon Ramo in his office in Beverly Hills. This is Rik Nebeker. You were telling me something about editing.


Ramo:
My final word about editing. I was to appear on the cover of a business magazine, and the writer who came to interview me was intrigued with engineers, scientists, PhDs founding and running companies. It was somewhat more unusual back in those days than now, although it was not without ample precedents in the past. So the question he put to me right away starting the interview was, "Would you say, Dr. Ramo, that engineers make the best managers?" And I said, "Engineers make the best engineers." It may be that some engineers will have managerial talents, and be in the right place at the right time, just as may be true of lawyers or accountants or salesmen, or tax experts or whatever. Now, on the magazine then, here was this picture of me, and here was this quote: "Engineers make the best engineers." Well, someone, before the cover actually got out, knew that that was a mistake. Obviously that had been a misprint. So looking at the text, and seeing the question that was asked of me, he changed it to: "Engineers make the best managers." "I quote Dr. Ramo on engineers." All right.


Nebeker:
Well, actually, I wanted to as you a very similar question. There's a tendency in the last several decades, I think, for high technology companies to have MBAs without technical background acting as managers at various levels. I'm wondering in your own varied experience, whether you think this is a good trend.


Ramo:
Well, first of all, I doubt whether what you said is true. I think I would change it a little bit to make it true for my experience, my impression of what is going on. There are managers of technological operations who have little or no formal training in science and technology. They tend to be few in number, or there's much less than half. They're more like ten percent. Then there are perhaps half of the principal executives of major technological corporations, or even of small, not yet major, maybe minor, technological corporations. There's a big half that have some technical background, and then finally, there's about a quarter that have a lot of technological background, and perhaps no formal education in business, marketing, economics, and so on, who pick up what they need. Because after all, most of the time, and indeed, almost all of the time, a successful technological corporation has a team, has a number of people who, one way or another, work together, has leadership, sometimes not just one person who is a leader. Sometimes there are two or three people that share the leadership and work together well. And somehow they can hire the talent. If none of us had any background in law, for example, with formal education, but you cannot run a major corporation without beginning to develop quickly the fact that you need lawyers, you're not going to get the corporation started without lawyers, you're not going to be in business without signing contracts. So you use lawyers, and sometimes, that's all you need -- you will forever be hiring the lawyers that you need. In other instances, a lawyer comes into the operation, and he's bright and broad, and may have gotten an A in physics, in the one year of physics that he had, and may have had very high grades in math, and had a hard time deciding whether he was going to go into law or science, who finds it very easy to pick up enough so he knows how to deal with, and become a strong team member, and may become a chief executive officer, leaning heavily on the others. I think if you look around at the MBAs who hold principle executive jobs, you'll find half of them had engineering degrees before they took their MBA. And you'll find of the other half a substantial fraction that had high grades in science and math. Now it depends upon what the operation really needs. It is quite apparent, I think, by now, that IBM needed something it didn't get at the top of the organization for a number of years. Basically an oversimplification for one of us on the outside, who knows many IBM people, the leadership positions in the past, I got to know Tom Watson Jr. very well, and his successors. Basically they missed the signs of market that the small personal computers would represent, and that was enough to do them in, and if you ask how that could have been prevented by selection of executives as to their academic background or education, it's not at all clear that if you're very strong in physics, and so well suited to studying physics that you understood relativity theory far more easily than the others in the class, that that would lead you to making the proper estimate as to whether the public would go for small computers or not. When the chips with lots of circuitry on a single chip became available it meant the price would go way down, and the capacity and flexibility and versatility of computers would go way up. That did not necessarily mean that anybody that put together a little company, to make small computers, like Apple -- part of Apple was the luck of just A for Apple for their first version, how could you be afraid of a computer if you're considering the purchase of one that was called Apple? And that was just luck that they lucked onto that name, and probably, as a marketing thing, that was enormous. But there was nothing that Apple did in engineering that was anything more than the straight-forward application of well-known things, and the two fellows who put it together, I was told by one of the financial backers, I said, "Why did you back that company when there were a thousand people with the same proposals -- a few guys who wanted to make little computers that are cheap, and they're going to make them in the garage, and so on." "Well, the others came forth and they wanted a million dollars, and they probably needed five or ten million to really get going, and enough marketing, enough manufacturing volume, enough sales activities around the nation to get the volume up so they could keep the price down and still make money. So they needed millions, or tens of millions of dollars. These fellows borrowed, they mortgaged their houses, they borrowed from their cousins and their aunts and their parents and their grandparents -- their whole family was involved -- they weren't going to make it. They were going to ruin their families in great depth. They had to make it." That's what the backer says, "So I decided to give them my backing."


Nebeker:
Okay, what I though I might do, if it was okay with you, is as I was reading this book, your Business of Science, which is in large part, autobiographical, there were certain questions that occurred to me, or issues you hadn't fully explored there.


Ramo:

Okay, let's go after them.


Nebeker:
Okay. You grew up in Salt Lake City. Do you remember the address?


Ramo:

Yes. 236 South 2nd East -- was this little house that I was born in.


Nebeker:
Okay. I lived for a while in my youth in Westminster Avenue, Sugarloaf section, I think it's called, Salt Lake City.


Ramo:
Well you see, you were out in the sticks at the time that I was born. The main city had addresses like South 2nd East. All the temple in the center, and the first street east of the temple, second street east of the temple, so on, south.


Nebeker:
I see. So you were downtown.


Ramo:

In the main town!


Nebeker:
Yeah, right.


Ramo:
Lot's of people were downtown. Very few people -- well, there were farms, small farms, outside of the city, and of course, in one direction, namely north, where the state capital was, it merely got into fairly high mountains, and so the houses there, that were on little streets that curved, and went with the mountains they had, names of streets -- so the moment you spoke, did you say, "Westminster"?


Nebeker:
Westminster, yes.


Ramo:
So the moment you said, "Westminster," I knew that this was not part of the city. You didn't have names; you had numbers, for the main city.


Nebeker:
Okay. You said in your book that you came from a non-Mormon family.


Ramo:

Yes.


Nebeker:
Could you tell me a little about your family background?


Ramo:
Well, my father was born in Brest-Litovsk where the treaty was signed between Germany and Russia, at the end of the first world war. He came as a child, to “go west young man” applied to my grand uncle, who was the uncle of my father. He was the first one from that area. That part of the Baltic area was sometimes Germany, sometimes a part of extended Greater Prussia, sometimes Russia, sometimes Poland. And the name Ramo originated in Spain, in 1492 -- in the time of the Inquisitions.


Nebeker:
1492?


Ramo:
Yes, in 1492, that name was allocated as were all "o"-ending names in Spain. There is no such thing as an "o"-ending name in Spain except names that were assigned by the government to Jews who converted to Catholicism in order to be allowed to stay. They weren't killing the Jews, they were selling them out, because there wanted a totally Christian country. This was Queen Isabella at the time. The reason for assigning names with "o"-endings was so that those people could be conspicuously identifiable, to see if they really were practicing Catholicism. Some of them were kicked out afterwards, and went up north. "Ramo" -- there is a French version -- "Rameau," the composer Phillipe Rameau was a peer of Johannes Sebastian Bach in Germany. Wrote the same kinds of things, but not as famous. And the only "Ramo" name that I run across with other people -- a man called me up about thirty or forty years ago, who was in town, he was an officer of the Scandinavian airlines, and I asked him, where the name he called me, because he had picked up my name some place, and wanted to see if there was a possibility that we might be related.


Nebeker:
His name was the same?


Ramo:
His name was "R-A-M-O" and he had been -- his family-- as far as he know, they were Christians, and they had been in the Baltic area, some times Finland, sometimes Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, in that whole area there, right around Finland. And then there was a young man who came up to me after I gave a lecture at Cal Tech once, and said -- very handsome, very tall man, stood out -- and he said he was a Ph.D. student in geology. And he said, "I have the same name as one of your sons." So I looked at him, and I said, you know, to myself, "Big deal, so his name is either James or Alan," and I said, "Which one, Jim or Alan?" And he said, "Alan." So I said, "Well, you spell it the same way as he does -- A-L-L-E-N, or do you spell it, A-L-A-N -- the way he does it? How do you spell it?" He said, "Dr. Ramo, I don't think you understood me, because actually, my name is Alan Ramo." And once after I appeared on a French television show, the equivalent of the French TV network, whatever they might call it there, decided to an hour on space. And they came to America to interview a number of us. They had conversations with me for a few minutes around some satellite models in our laboratories. I received a letter from a man who said, "In view of the similarity of our names, I though it would be interesting to check to see if we could somehow be distantly related." And he was in France. He wrote from France, of course, but his people had come from Germany, into France, some fifty or hundred years before, after one of the wars between France and Germany, going back to the turn of the century. So I immediately looked to the second page, at the end to see the signature, and his name was Leon Ramo, L-E-O-N Ramo. It turns out that my brother, my only brother, two years older, is named Leon. But as near as I could tell, I couldn't find anything that he told me that would suggest ... But that's the background.


Nebeker:
Was it your father who immigrated to this country?


Ramo:

Yes.


Nebeker:
And what did he do?


Ramo:
He opened a store. It became the Golden Rule Store. You may not know this. Most people don't, but JC Penney's started as the Golden Rule Store.


Nebeker:
Hmm, I didn't know that.


Ramo:
And in the west, and after he had quite a number of stores going, he discovered he couldn't make the name stick, because the word, "Golden Rule Store," had been used before as a name for stores. That's when Penney decided, not to change it to "Penney," but "JC Penney." By gosh he was going to fix it so for the next time around, nobody could take the name. And in almost every town in the west there was a Golden Rule store, as well as of course a JC Penny store. And my father's store was the Golden Rule Store


Nebeker:
My goodness. And your mother's family?


Ramo:
She was born in what is called White Russia; the big city nearby was Kiev. She also came as a youngster, so the people that were young kids; there was a certain amount of association. Her whole family was in the New York area and some up in Canada. But they both came to this country as children in the late 1800s.


Nebeker:
I see.


Ramo:

Like a hundred years ago.


Nebeker:
Did you get into amateur radio at all as a boy?


Ramo:

No.


Nebeker:
Was the Depression hard on your family?


Ramo:
Yes, but I would not have been able, since I started college, in October, a few weeks after the crash, in 1929, if I had not won music scholarships, which paid room, which paid tuition and some money for other expenses, and in addition to that, free violin lessons in the music school, I had an obligation to play with the orchestra. But I worked my way through school, during the Depression, working after school at my father's store, which narrowly escaped the bankruptcy that was so common in all of those businesses, because obviously there was a great fall off in all business. So the Depression was not as hard for me as it was for many people, because I did get my education. And in other respects, the Depression, by a trick of fate, was fortunate because if there had not been a depression, I would have finished my four years engineering education, typical engineering course, gone to General Electric, from which I received an offer for which I did later, I probably would have gotten at that time. I would not been so readily distinguishable from the others that were hired, at large numbers, in the expansion of the electrical business of the nation, because there were no jobs, because there was no hiring going on in 1933. But because I had the highest grade point average in the four years in the engineering school. There were some 15 or 20 students each in mechanical engineering, civil, electrical, chemical, mining engineering, metallurgical, I think was in there - I was two years younger than the next person. When I finished, I had just turned 20, in May as we came the end of the senior year.


Nebeker:
Did you skip some grades?


Ramo:
I skipped a couple of grades in Salt Lake City in the early days. If you were good at arithmetic and spelling, were constantly getting A's or ahead of the class, they would skip you half a grade. So I skipped 4 half grades during my elementary period. In addition to that skipping, my older brother, Leon, who went into medicine, and spent most of his life in Denver Colorado, where he practiced, he was very good at math, and greatly intrigued by it. And he insisted that his kid brother, because he was so excited when he saw what you did in long division, the whole idea of tens and columns, and where you multiply the piece, and brought it down and added, moved over, how you did multiplication, and all of that intrigued him so much, that he insisted that he had to explain it to me.


Nebeker:
I see.


Ramo:
So I was two years ahead in math, and I did a lot of reading, so I was good at spelling, and so with spelling and arithmetic, I had no problem. I had a bigger vocabulary. I was the littlest kid and the youngest kid in the class each time. And so I could get a scholarship at Cal Tech and at other places. I went on to get my doctorate. Now, by doing that, when I arrived at General Electric, one of the very few hired during that period, in 1936 when I arrived at General Electric, I was in competition with the few hires who didn't begin to know the frontier science work, which was what I got at Cal Tech. In fact, again, not only was I fortunate in having three years of graduate work, but I was fortunate that by chance, almost, I landed at Cal Tech, rather than other places, because at Cal Tech, it was very special, compared with a typical engineering school. You didn't really study engineering at Cal Tech. You studied the science underlying engineering. So I came to General Electric as a scientist, trained in the latest science, and they are key engineers. There were people who had been there 20, distinguished 45, 55, 60 year old people, who were way out of date as to what's happening on the scientific front.


Nebeker:
Yes, and a lot was happening.


Ramo:
And they had their internal courses, and being brash, and not knowing any better, when I was asked, "What do you think of our course," I said, "Well, it's kind of out of date." And so, you know, you learned how to design a class A amplifier in school, you go to GE, and the engineering designs transmitters tells you about how you design a class C amplifier, or something. And none of them had studied any math since their bachelor's degree, and hardly paid any attention to physics. There was a research lab with physicists. It was small and isolated, and had very little impact. Early on, it had had a lot of impact. It developed filaments.


Nebeker:
Why did you decide on engineering at University of Utah?


Ramo:
With the idea that, I heard, that if you are a scientist, you have only one place basically where you could work, and that had to be at a university, as a professor. And you teach, and you do some research. I felt that the chances of a degree that would pay off as much greater than if you were in the business of applying science. I was not against a professor's life. But I thought that really to be somewhere as a scientist, you'd have to be at one or two or three of the most prestigious institutions, well funded, so you could do research, and they wouldn't let you do research, they wouldn't give you a budget, they wouldn't give you assistance, laboratory equipment, unless you were a real hotshot. And it was something like not choosing to be a concert violinist. There's room for three or four concert violinists in the world -- not even thirty. But engineering, for goodness sakes, there's all kinds of engineering, it takes a lot of engineers to work out all the things that a society needs.


Nebeker:
And why electrical engineering?


Ramo:

Well, that was for me the foremost field.


Nebeker:
The one most closely related to physics?


Ramo:

Well, the one that was the frontier field at the time.


Nebeker:
Well, aeronautics, one might argue, was also...


Ramo:

Well, aeronautics was not even ready yet.


Nebeker:
Okay, they weren't teaching that yet.


Ramo:
They weren't teaching it at the University of Utah. In fact, Cal Tech was almost by itself in having PhDs in aeronautics, which is what you needed, in aeronautics. And Guggenheim came along, and gave Princeton, and two or three other places some money, along with Cal Tech. But Cal Tech's Ph.D.'s, all under Von Karmon, that were opening up the field of aeronautical engineering, became heads of departments at Berkeley and Stanford and Purdue, at MIT, at Johns Hopkins, at Cornell. They were all the Cal Tech group. It was a pioneering field in engineering.


Nebeker:
Okay. At Cal Tech what professors most impressed you or influenced you?


Ramo:
It turns out that, as is true, I think, in almost anything in life, when you ask that kind of question, a person that says, "Well, there are one or two that really stand out," there's something wrong there. They weren't really heavily involved. They weren't really working the frontier. If you, as has happened to me, if you're into many things, and you've been in the business of creating things, not doing a routine part of a job, there are a lot of people who have influenced you. Cal Tech was, and still is today, characterized by having quite a number of superstars. It's a small school, even today. You know, there are only 200 freshman at Cal Tech. MIT has 2000. It's 10 to 1. The same thing applies to all other numbers. So you've got a faculty there, the post docs, are of a pick. So are the young people, as well as the older people. You had the privilege of at any given quarter you registered for, say, four courses, and had four professors, of them continuing through out the year. You would still spend perhaps ten percent of your classroom time, or twenty percent in seminars, where you'd be listening to all the other people. So, for example, because I didn't specialize in physics, I had a split major in electrical engineering and physics - electrical engineering, physics and mathematics were in one division. Others, engineering, civil, mechanical, and so on, were in another division. Chemistry, chemical engineering, biology. And Millikan was head of the school. He was also head of the division -- physics, math and electrical engineering. So in that division, whether you were getting a Ph.D. primarily in physics, or primarily in electrical engineering, there was really no difference, except the thesis. But I did not take more than the required elementary courses, say, in quantum theory. This was before semiconductors. So quantum theory was something of interest to physicists. The clear adaptation of principles that came out of wave mechanics and quantum physics into electrical apparatus had not yet taken place.


Nebeker:
This was unusual? To have a joint engineering and physics degree?


Ramo:

Maybe one in four did something like that.


Nebeker:
Oh, I see.


Ramo:
For instance, math and physics were quite common. Theoretical physicists, they often split with math.


Nebeker:
So its says on you Ph.D. degree, "Electrical Engineering and Physics"?


Ramo:

Yes, something like that.


Nebeker:
A couple of people, Charles Townes among them, and it's described in that book, told me about Smythe's course in electromagnetic theory. Did you take that course?


Ramo:

Yes, that was required of all.


Nebeker:
That was a weeding-out course?


Ramo:
Well, to me you need language stronger than weeding out. See, I looked at the situation there, and I said, "Well, the minimum is three years." But most people spent four to five years. Well, I'm in a kind of a hurry. I want to get to that General Electric job. So I want to get my degree in three years. Well, if you're going to do that, you have to become a candidate for the doctorate. You've got to have two years after becoming a candidate. So doing it in three years, I have to become a candidate at the end of the first year. What are the requirements to be a candidate? A thesis on a subject that's accepted, certain mandatory courses, and French and German. I studied had Spanish. But all you had to do was take the French and German exams, given every quarter, because it has students all over the world. They can't tell you that you have to have so many years in French, so many years in German. Now, I said I will study German by myself by reading Steinmetz's book, Electrical Apparatus, for example. And French, I will knock off at the text exam at the end of the first year. I'll take my German exam, then I'll study French for a quarter, without taking the courses. If I don't I have to stay more years. I'm stuck. Now Smythe's course was required: Principles of Electricity and Electromagnetism. I said, well, this is kind of silly. I was not allowed to take that course until I had had Introduction to Mathematical Physics, which I had never had. Instead of Smythe's course, what I was supposed to do was take a Humanities or Social Science course, and get a master's degree at the end of the year. The requirement for a masters was that you had to, in addition to a certain number of units, you had to have one of these, as is true of every year of undergraduate work at Cal Tech, unusual at that time. But I had met with Professor Sorensen, who was the senior electrical engineering man. And I said, "I'd like to take that Electricity and Magnetism course instead of the Humanities." He said two things, "You don't have the prerequisite, and if you don't make it, you'll have nothing to show for your year." I said, "If I don't make it, I'll play the violin for a living." He said, what's he going to do with this kid? Now, I said to myself, "Okay, I'll be handicapped at first." Apparently they were supposed to have this course that I'll be studying that in parallel. But electricity and magnetism, you know I finished four years in and electrical engineering, I'm at the top of my class, what the hell is there for me to learn about electricity and magnetism? You know, they had their own way of doing it, text books, you had to use, printed at Oxford, Cambridge, and so would spell ("show") S-H-O-W -- "Show that such and such is true" -- S-H-E-W, and things like that, except for being, ... So here I am, I had been permitted to register for my course. And on my way, I'm going to get my degree in three years. I come to my first class. And there's Smythe, and he said, "This is a problem course. I'll give you homework to do, a group of problems, some of them are in a book. Sir James Jeans [right word?]. And some of them will be on these mimeograph sheets. So here's a group of 15 problems. You do these, and when you come in, I'll call on you to put the problems on the blackboard. If there's some problem that nobody gets, then I will do that problem. Other than that, I may criticize the problem by saying that you could have done it in fewer steps, if you had recognized this principle, I may criticize it. This is not an electric course. You read the book and you work the problems. And generally, he says, "with the kind of class we have, with these graduate students from all over the world, people come in with very original ways of solving problems. And that's a very important part of your education." Okay. I came home; I read the first problem. It's one out of the book at the end of the first chapter. The first chapter, I knew all about, all the principles of electricity they talked about in the first chapter. The problem said, "Show, that not every family of curves, function of x, y, z, lambda equals 0, can be a set of (equipotentials?), but only those four of which." And then there was a group of three equations. The equations had funny symbols. They were partial derivatives. I had not had advanced calculus. I didn't know what the hell those symbols were. I didn't know what the hell they were talking about. I didn't know what the problem was. What has it got to do with this first chapter about electricity? And I knew I was in trouble. And I want to tell you, for the first half of the quarter, the midterm, I got a 32 on the exam, so I knew I had flunked, and I knew I was going to go back to Salt Lake City in disgrace, and I went around to see the professor. He suggested that we come see him when we get the papers back. It turned out that that was a B. The average grade was 30. You see, I didn't know, he tosses off four problems, ... it was interesting, ... I couldn't do any of them. I had made a stab at all four of them, and I got partial credit because the stabs were not bad. These were problems that top scientists, when they first saw them, worked on them for years, so you're not supposed to get a hundred. Of course Woolridge did get 100.


Nebeker:
He was in your class?


Ramo:
Yes, he had a master’s already. He was the same age. He came from Oklahoma. He had gotten a masters of physics from Oklahoma. So he had the requirements for candidacy, and he knocked off all four of these problems. And he was a summa cum laude physicist in his work at Cal Tech. The W, DRW, became my bosom pal. But my work, at the University of Utah, as preparation for Cal Tech graduate work, was terrible. Not enough math, not enough physics. In fact, the physics course we had, after all basic to electrical engineering, was in the sophomore year, chemistry the first year, physics the second year, and it was the same course that my brother took as a medical student. There was no calculus in this physics course. Because it was taken by everybody who had to take a physics course. No other physics. Now of course we learned physics and electricity in the third and fourth year, and electrical engineering. But the Cal Tech undergraduates, who were so sharp, they had very advanced physics. Today, you can get a bachelor's degree at Cal Tech, if you're one of those 200 freshman, and you stay the four years, and you're in the average, you will study the same amount of physics that typically is all you need for a Ph.D. in physics. I mean, you've got quantum theory, relativity, the whole shebang! The courses in graduate tend to be special things from the superstar professors of the frontier things that they're doing. But you're supposed to have the basics. Feyneman's course in physics, two years of physics, freshman and sophomore year, really covers physics as it's known today. Now you have to go off into the specialized frontier things that have not yet been worked out, that are being worked by the top scientists. That's what the graduate work consists of. So my preparation was terrible.


Nebeker:
Yeah.


Ramo:
Well, I ended up getting a B. It was a 3; they used numbers in that Smythe course. And I did take the French and German exams, and passed them, and after I passed them, not having ever registered for a course in either of them, there was a scandal, because I proved that what they were doing was not an adequate way of finding out whether you knew French or German. It was a three-hour exam, same as the finals, and you arrive there, say at 1:00, from 1:00 - 4:00, and they say, "What's your field?" "Electricity." "Okay." They give you a book, and they say, "Do these and these pages. Here are some articles. Do these." Well, I took those pages, and I guessed, and looked back in the index, and thumbed through, trying to find a word a second time, and from the meaning, did some guessing, I ended up with a paragraph, I put down some things, I put down dash, dash, dash, and put down some things, and I finished in an hour and a half, and there was no point in staying. So I turned my paper in, thinking it was all a big joke because I'd have to register for German, because this was ridiculous. When I left the German room, I walk out into the hall, and there's the sign of French. See, I had my mind on German, and this was the first time I noticed the French exam, and "hour and a half, why not?" and I walked in, there's the instructor, and he says, "You're an hour and a half late," and I said, "I was doing the German exam." And he said, "Well, I'm going to have to give you the same amount, you know, I'll give you the same exam, but I'm going to have to give you the same amount of stuff to do." I said, "Look, I finished the German in an hour and a half, and French is easier," I said, "for me than German." I had never studied anything about French. The main thing he gave me was a book about vacuum tubes, radio tubes. It was a book about the triode, you know, "la lampez troz electrodeez," [Transcriber's note:, I think he meant, "La lampe de trois electrodes,"]


Nebeker:
[laughter]


Ramo:
Well, I did the same thing. I handed in my paper. A week later, they had posted the names of those who had passed the exams. I passed both exams. Now, the other graduate students, and everybody knew that I was doing this, and they all thought it was a little bit absurd, and so the word got to the faculty. And the faculty was divided. Smythe, as a matter of fact said, "Well, you see, Ramo is born of foreign-born parents." And he said, "People that are just one generation removed, they have a natural affinity for foreign languages." You know, I had always spoken English at home. And if there was anything I picked up I studied Spanish for three years. It was started in the seventh grade in my case, 7th, 8th and 9th grade, three years -- and I really got very good at Spanish. I won some contests. I received a Mexican newspaper daily. Of course it was mailed and I got it a week or two late. In my father's store, there was a period there just about that time when there was a lot of railroad modifying, just before 1929, which put a stop to all changes. So it was a period just a few years ahead of that. And so a lot of Mexicans were hired and came into the store, and I was the Spanish translator.


Nebeker:
I see.


Ramo:
So I spoke broken Mexican. Others on the faculty, they couldn't do anything. It was too late. They changed the exam, an hour and a half in each direction, had an interview in the language for five minutes before you were allowed to take the exam. So after that things changed. Now there's no longer mandatory French and German.


Nebeker:
Hmm.


Ramo:
And I went to General Electric research laboratories where you read the articles, and if the thing is in your field, you know from the equations, diagrams and other things, and there's a translation service in the research labs. So you ask for those articles to be translated. So I never had to learn French and German.


Nebeker:
Can you tell me a little about your thesis work, your Ph.D.?


Ramo:
I measured a million volts more accurately than it had ever been measured before in that range, both steady state -- that were going from 50 cycle in California 60 cycle, conforming with the rest of the nation, and artificial lightning. So I built an artificial lightning generator, the apparatus for doing the measurement. Now the reason for the high voltage -- there was a high voltage laboratory in Cal Tech -- that was a frontier field. And Sorenson, who was a senior professor, was the expert on high voltage.


Nebeker:
Was he your thesis advisor?


Ramo:
Yes. He was a national expert. And he had the most pull from the standpoint of fellowships, how generous are we going to be, so I decided if I'm going to do a thesis, it doesn't matter to me; I'll do it with this most senior professor. And that's pretty much it. Now it turns out, by the typical, fortunate accidents that have characterized my personal career -- being at the right place at the right time, things falling in such a way that it comes out right -- I, at GE research labs, in choosing an area of endeavor, I decided to operate where there were no experts. I mention that in the book. I got into microwave generation, and in order to get the right conditions of theory (sent to me?) I should have of the electron motion and the high frequency waves, it took a high voltage -- you know, like tens of thousands of volts or something like that. And you have a little tube here, with a cathode and anode, magnetic fields and so on, and you're trying to pulse it -- you're trying to put 10,000 to 20,000 volts on it -- and you're very likely to burn it up. The cathode emits some electrons, but they come back and hit the cathode with such high energy because of the high velocity that they strip the cathode and you no longer have a tube that produces electrons and you may not even have a vacuum anymore. The trick then, the obvious thing to do, it would occur to anybody reasonably competent, takes no genius, is to pulse it, but put the voltage on it for a microsecond. I know how to make a pulse generator to generate a reasonably high voltage, or even a very high voltage, up to a million volts.


Nebeker:
Who was interested in pulse generation at that time?


Ramo:
I was! Not because of any application. I wasn't smart enough, creative enough, or imaginative enough to see radar. It was totally removed from my thoughts. I was just interested in generating microwaves. Now if I could produce by putting the voltage on one thousandths of the time, a little ten-watt lamp here off of the 60 cycle, and I put my ten watt bulb along a transmission line I pulled out from the tube, they looked about the same. I knew I was generating a kilowatt when the thing was on to give me that same amount of light.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
The higher up directors of research at the laboratories who was, of course, in touch with the defense department -- it wasn't the defense department then -- it was the Navy, as a matter of fact, rather than the Army, that was most interested or had the right person on duty, and they came around to see me, and made a secret laboratory out of it, and that's when I learned about radar.


Nebeker:
This was at Cal Tech?


Ramo:
No, this was at GE. So what I'm saying is that the high voltage thesis enabled me to think in terms of creating pulses, but the reason for the pulse in radar is to send the pulse out and wait for it to come back, and measure the time.


Nebeker:
What was the reason that Sorenson and others were interested in the kind of high voltage that you studied?


Ramo:
Electric power. High powered transmission. The reason we were going to a million was to have a large amount of leeway over, to understand phenomena better at 100,000, 150,000 watts. 100,000 volts were being used, for the new transmission lines for electric power, Boulder Dam area, they’d come great distances with high voltage so that you have low currents, high voltage, giving you a lot of power. This meant you had to design insulators, you had to understand corona phenomena, you had to understand what would happen along the lines if the lines got hit by lightning and you had temporary surges going above your voltage.


Nebeker:
So your thesis work was producing and measuring some extremely high voltages?


Ramo:

Yes.


Nebeker:
Was the original work those two things -- in generating such high voltage and in figuring out how to measure it accurately?


Ramo:
Well, we had, in the laboratory, transformers that were connected in such a way, other aspects of the laboratory, so you could produce a million volts of 60 cycles. I had the job of designing and building an artificial lightning generator to do the same thing in surges and to measure it. And I had to originate new techniques of measurements. You know, the way they measured high voltage was to have big spheres and move them along, that's on 60 cycle, until you got a flash between the two, so you drew a spark. And that distance told you how big the voltage had to be. Well, obviously subject to a lot of things about the nature of the air and the surface, and there was a problem of getting the voltage between the two spheres, and not somewhere else, because high voltage tends to jump around a lot. Now I mounted the spheres in such a manner that they were balanced and floated, and there's an attraction between the spheres, and I was measuring the force, and I took a count by calculation of the ceilings and the walls and the floor, and even the pipes that brought the voltage to the "shanks,” I guess they call it, to the spheres. And that sort of thing had never been done before. So I corrected for all these effects - you don't just have pure spheres. Lord Kelvin had calculated the attractive force between spheres years before.


Nebeker:
I see. So this was new accuracy in measuring that kind of voltage.


Ramo:

And not only was it a question of accuracy.


Nebeker:
You said that you became friends with Wooldridge there at Cal Tech. Were there any other Cal Tech graduate students you became close friends with?


Ramo:
Oh yes. One of them turned out to be a brother in law of Wooldridge because he married Wooldridge's sister. James Wilson McCray. He became executive vice president of AT& T. He died early; out of our group he was the one to go first -- by a heart attack. Then there was Louis Rader. Lou Rader was executive vice president of General Electric. He was head of Sperry Rand Univac at one point. And then he ended his career as head of electrical engineering at University of Virginia. Johnny Pierce. John R. Pierce.


Nebeker:
Oh yes.


Ramo:
He went to Bell Laboratories. That was his entire career. Since then, after he retired, he's been both at Cal Tech, as a professor, and more recently, at Stanford. But he’s a little bit older than I am -- he continues to be active at Stanford, even in his advanced age. But Johnny received many awards, including the Medal of Honor of the IEEE.


Nebeker:
You said in your book that you were always interested in General Electric.


Ramo:

Well, as a child, it was my only exposure to electrical industry.


Nebeker:
And you said that you started in the general engineering laboratory and GE in Schenectady when you started there.


Ramo:

Yes.


Nebeker:
How much contact did you have with the famous GE research lab?


Ramo:
Well, I became a part of it later, a little later. They joined the part of the General Electric laboratory that was doing frontier work. What I was doing at general engineering laboratory was more suitable for the research lab. They recognized that early, and the GE research laboratory leadership wanted me moved over, but there was a certain amount of competition, and the leadership of the general engineering laboratory felt that a portion of their work should be just as much research as anything going on in the research labs. There was no way you could draw the line to distinguish it. Theoretically, the general engineering laboratory would be a place where you had in mind doing something that was going to have application, for sure, whereas the GE research lab was supposed to be working on fundamentals. So since I wanted to produce microwaves, which I was sure would be useful, and so was the leadership of the general engineering laboratory. You see, when I first came there I was associated with your first year at General Electric. In those days you were like an intern in the hospital and you get moved around. But the general engineering laboratory leadership decided that they need to have someone more a little bit like me than the others that were directing parts of the lab. There was a big hole, that is, they really didn't have an adequate amount of the physics dealt with.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
So I was working on electron optics as well as microwaves. Once I found I needed a beam of electrons -- I might as well use the beams so I proposed developing the electron microscope, which the Germans were into, and which we were not doing yet in this country.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
So I was doing quite a number of things, and the fact that they were not hiring at General Electric, they were not hiring PhDs especially, I had a substantial amount of sponsorship. But when the war came along, they began to pull things together, and that's when they decided it was time for me to be in the research lab.


Nebeker:
How did you get interested in microwaves, high frequency waves?


Ramo:
Well, because there it was, and it was not being exploited. The whole spectrum was being used and nothing much was going on in microwaves. In fact the people that were generating high frequency in the hundreds of megacycles, doing it in the same way they were doing it before -- vacuum tubes, and you’d just keep making the circuits smaller to get the higher frequency, and the tubes get less and less efficient -- and I became attracted to the idea that you ought to be able to make waves in the electron stream and not depend on a oscillating current in a vacuum tube.


Nebeker:
Many of the people who got into radar and into those frequencies in the 1930's were radio people who were pushing the bounds of the radio art to higher frequencies. It's curious that you were in what was a type of power engineering for your Ph.D. work, these high voltage phenomena.


Ramo:
But, you see, at Cal Tech there was no such thing. We were studying the basic science of electricity, and it had very little to do with whether it was power or radio. You see, to measure voltages that are very high, the transient lightning generator, which was of interest -- that was high frequency.


Nebeker:
Uh huh.


Ramo:
You see, you're generating a pulse. Therefore, you're really generating high frequency. It's not steady state. It's a transient, and therefore it's the same as generating very high frequencies, because that's the only way you get steep sides to the rise is high frequencies. You know, Fourier analysis to the pulse gives you a very wide spectrum from low to high frequencies.


Nebeker:
I see.


Ramo:
So the main thing is, I felt I needed to work in a field where you attack the basic physics -- there isn't any engineering. I was looking to something where I could be an expert, because there were no experts. If they were already building tubes, circuits, and so on, that would produce, say, 1000 megacycles per second, then I would go up to 10,000 megacycles per second.


Nebeker:
What was your wartime work at GE?


Ramo:
Well, it was in the microwave field, because it was the same fundamentals that applied to microwave radar, along with the atom bomb, certain submarine warfare things, bomb sites -- these were the main items of WWII, so we were all working in the field.


Nebeker:
What specifically were you working on? Do you recall?


Ramo:
Well, I do recall. You know, the way in which microwaves were generated for decades was by the magnetron?


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
Well, I was the first in this country to pulse a magnetron. I had patents that the British had anticipated. Until all the clearances [right word?] so we all came together after the war really started with the British, along about 1940, before we got into the war. Then I discovered that what I was doing, the British had done a few years before, and they were moved along, whereas I was the only one in the country producing 10-kilowatt pulses of microwave energy. At RCA, Bell Laboratories, nobody was doing that, was up to that. But the British were doing it, and they were building actual tubes. Then, Bell Labs was brought in, and of course, the MIT Radiation Laboratory was started, to really start mass-producing these things. But I was one of the pioneers of that area of endeavor, but what I had done was about one thousandths, because there were about a thousand people in the act within a couple of years there, and at various places that were doing the same sorts of things. So I was one of many workers of the field.


Nebeker:
So you were at GE throughout war producing magnetrons?


Ramo:
Not producing. Understanding the fundamentals of producing microwaves, and receiving them, transmitting them, one thing or another. And this was going on, as I say, en masse at the Radiation Laboratory.


Nebeker:
How closely did you work with the Rad Lab people?


Ramo:
Well, I was there about once a week, bringing something in there to have them confirm and test things. On the receivers, for example, we did some things that were unusual, and they would incorporate some of those things. And the people working on the magnetrons, they made use of my early papers. They discussed those with me. But they didn't need me. What I'm saying is that my work was dwarfed by the big operation.


Nebeker:
Yeah.


Ramo:
Bell labs had a much bigger organization. If you added everyone up that was going on at some universities, and every industrial organization in radar, whereas before I could four of five or six people that I knew, some at Bell Labs, some at RCA, and we were all the pioneers in microwaves, now there seemed to be 400 or 500 people, and there were a lot of very good ones. I mean they were people that had very exceptional skill in making calculations who could do it far faster and better than I could, that came out of the university groups. It's a bit like on the atom bomb project. Imagine that you had a company that had a half a dozen people working on the idea that eventually you’d get AC energy out of nuclear reactions in fission, and then you bring in the Fermi's, the Lawrenson's, the Robby’s, the von Neumann's, and so on, and these were a cut above all the rest of us in terms of the insights, the way they could understand things.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
Now there are two aspects of this. One's kind of the creative, inventive thing. And other is the analytical; you know the science well, and you could manipulate with ease the complex interactions, and you see all the relationships. It's the second of these two things that the top academic scientists were especially strong in. They were sometimes not very inventive. You see, when you come right down to it, the atom bomb, you ask "who was the inventor?" The things is, to those who understand the business, doing it is, in terms of invention, is kind of obvious. That's the reason why so many of these people would not have thought to pulse a magnetron.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
You see, you start with the idea that you're going to have waves and electron streams, and the electron stream moves slowly in compared to the velocity of light, but you have it in stream waves. So you're going to have high force, then zero, then a force in the other direction. You create lumps in the electron stream, then, in effect, looking at it, you see it's AC, and if you pass by a region here where there's an oscillating electric field, it speeds up the electrons that pass by, it slows down the electrons in the opposite path, the fast electrons catch up with the slow electrons from the previous ones so you get lumps. As you look at those, you get bunching, and you look at this, and this is going at a speed such that passing any other point where you can induce an electric field on the surroundings as a result of the bunching, you will get microwave frequencies. That's quite different from the vacuum tube when you think about the grid.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
By the time the grid has gone positive, or it's average, thus attracting more electrons, it becomes negative because the frequency is so high, and the electrons, they turn back.


Nebeker:
Yes, they haven't made it all the way to the end.


Ramo:
You get very little bunching, and the whole concept that you are changing the amount of current that gets to the plate, and what you’ve got us a wave, a phase of the plate, and the wave, it's not how many electrons it receives, it's what it's looking at in terms of electric field of the electrons. So if you start inventing there, you have to see the phenomenon basically, but that doesn't mean that you would be able to make, for example, complex calculations about the waves.


Nebeker:
And that's where the physicists excelled.


Ramo:
Well, the right kind of physicists, the top, theoretical physicists, who were accustomed to doing complex calculations of that type on physical phenomena. But they might not be inventive. Now, you see, Wooldridge was not an inventive fellow, for example. Like I had something like 25 patents by the time I had reached the age of 30, could have worked out the theory, if we had worked together, he would have worked out the theory faster than I was doing it. I was above average, but I'm saying these fellows were to be described by words quite different from above average.


Nebeker:
Right. How did you get hired at Hughes right after the war?


Ramo:
Well, it was again one of these peculiar accidents. I wanted to settle back in the West. My wife and I wanted both to be in the West. And I had offers from Cal Tech, UCLA, Stanford and Berkeley to be a professor, and I might have taken one of those. I also had offers from the aircraft companies, whose leadership saw that they needed to be into electronics, which they didn’t understand. They though they had to hire a few electronics engineers from the electrical industry. Mainly what they thought at, people at Grand, Lockheed, Northrop or North American or Douglas, was they were going to get their electronic equipment from electronic manufacturers. They thought of electronics as being things where you buy boxes where you connect, them. The chairman of North American Aviation used to say, "electronics is where you buy boxes that you connect together so that some things that don't work are connected to other things that also don't work. That's the definition of electronics." They hired Rosie the Rivertor. They got their formulas from NACA. They didn't do much in the way of research. And as soon as the war was over all of their heads of [aerodynamics] went to the universities. They were all those von Karmen graduates; the had departments of aeronautical engineering in the universities


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
So they didn't understand electronics, and I saw that. And either there was an opportunity or a reason for not going to work for them. And I knew that guided missiles were coming, and I knew that they were going to be building faster and faster jet airplanes, and the pilot would be totally mystified as to what he's supposed to do up there, except get home safely, because there's no way that he could see the enemy, and get into position. The whole thing was too fast, too difficult, because it all had to be done by computers, radars, and lock-on radars, blind landing and takeoff, because there is no point in having interceptors to stop Russian bombers coming over with A-bombs if you couldn't take off in all weather conditions. So basically, they were going to build a frame around things they didn't understand that had come out of the electronics industry. But I also so that General Electric and AT&T, Bell Laboratories, Raytheon, Philco, and RCA, of course, Westinghouse, they all had to make up for eleven years of depression, six years of war. They were way behind and the war brought a lot of things they ought to exploit if they were going to compete in FM, television, and the telephone company had to put out many more phones, and do something about switching so it all worked in long distances. They were not going to be in even remotely interested in military projects, but since the Russians were there, and they were going to have the A-bomb, there was going to be a big military R & D program around the nation.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Ramo:
Again, I say it didn't take a rocket scientist to see where this was going. So I wanted to really start a company, and I could have because of my books and articles. I was, for my age, exceedingly well known, because so many people had studied from my books. And, you know, recently, the fifth edition of the original Fields and Waves.


Nebeker:
I wanted to ask you about that book.


Ramo:
Here's the latest one. Now this says third edition someplace here, because we changed the name. Radio went out, communication electronics came in. And Whinnery became the dean of engineering so he was like me, administrative, really up to date. So we could talk about what needed to be done, to recognize that you didn’t need to deal with this anymore because people were getting that [unclear - in their university courses?]


Nebeker:
So you had a third offer.


Ramo:
I had a lot of offers. But I wanted to get into guided missiles, and I felt that guided missiles not only were going to be [incomprehensible] computers for manned airplanes and so on, tie-ins to radars and to the early warning systems required for the defense of the nation, which was going to be the number one project for the nation. But that required millions of dollars of backing. You couldn't just go the Air Force, who knew me well, and suggest what the program ought to be, and have them back you, if you didn't have a company to do it in. And all I really needed was a letterhead. And somehow, by accident, because there was one person who had been at GE that went to work for Howard Hughes, he caused me to go to lunch with a few fellows who were working for Howard Hughes, and I found out from them a confirmation of what I had always heard: Hughes aircraft company was not really a company; it was a name for a hobby shop that was totally a hundred percent owned, was not a separate corporation, was not a legal entity; it was owned by Hughes Tool company, which was solely owned by Howard Hughes. And he was very rich, because he had inherited at age 18 a stream of earnings, mostly before income taxes amounted to much, and he couldn't figure what to do with the money, being a young kid, 18, he wanted girls, he wanted to tinker with automobiles, he tried to build a steam car, not knowing it had already been done, and lost out to the internal combustion engine car, and then he got interested in airplanes. And he wanted to own all the land around him, he probably thought he could buy Los Angeles, and finally thought he wasn't that rich, but he could buy Culver City, which is where all the water went when it rained. So he bought a lot of land at Culver City. At any rate, here was this preposterous eccentric, who was horsing around with ridiculous projects, like that big wooden airplane, that was supposed to be a freighter -- could be shot down with ease by the Germans -- so it would never make it as a freighter. Then there was the Kaiser who was building cheap freighters, with no shortage of materials, metals, so someone suggested why not build a freighter that would fly, put a lot of engines on it, make it real big, so the wing spread six was the length of a football field, and put a lot of engines on it. The whole thing was kind of a childish thing.


Nebeker:
So why did you think that this would be a good place for you?


Ramo:
Well, the point is, he didn't know what was going on. He wasn't cleared for secret even, because he wouldn't allow himself to be fingerprinted, and he was hardly around, and these fellows were doing whatever they pleased, you might way. So they would get some contracts, and when they got some, they would work on the things, and they had a little bit of aid from Hughes for the things he was interested in, but mostly they were doing very little, and they were completing those projects that deserved to be canceled, or I was sure they would be. But all I had to do was have the letterhead of Hughes Aircraft Company, so at least there was an accountant, an accountant sent by the Hughes Tool Company, who took care of paying the bills, and he was the general manager. So what had happened was, these fellows went away from this lunch, and said, "if we can get Si Ramo to accept, we'll get contracts for guided missiles, for things he wants to do, that he has the pull to do. He has a position where he could bring those things in, and it will be more fun that way.


Nebeker:
Yes, I see.


Ramo:
Because with Howard Hughes, these projects were ridiculous, couldn't go on with this. So they went to the general manager, and he approved to making an offer to me. But at first, I said, "this is a real risky thing." And they said, "wait a minute now, I can find out." I paid a visit to Wright Field, and I talked to the people there whom I knew, and they wanted me to build up something. And they were confident that I would attract enough other people, and they were concerned that the main industry was turning a deaf ear so they were pleased for military work. So I decided, after talking with them, that there was no question that I could get contracts, and I did. I proposed some missile projects, and got contracts, cost plus. And then for building for buildings, which you could write off, and facilities, immediately you could get a loan, a V-loan, because the government was on a cost-plus contract behind it, so we didn't need any approval from the board of directors. We just went ahead and started doing things.


Nebeker:
I see. So in a sense, this was a very good setting for you.


Ramo:
Yes. And in a short time, we had the largest technically agreed concentration in one place in the entire country, with the exception of Bell Labs and Murray Hill. And we were the biggest in military. And we had the stars. They all wanted to come to California and get into this new thing. They knew this was the beginning of computer industry and robotry, this was a coming thing; they were all enthusiastic about it. We would get the top Ph.D.'s who were interested in industry from the best schools, and the more good people we got, the more the good ideas, and the more we began to take over - we would cause a cancellation of all of our arrival projects; it was an amazing phenomenon.


Nebeker:
It's very well described in your book, that period. I wanted to ask you about your book, the most famous one, Fields and Waves in Modern Radio, I guess that was what it was originally called.


Ramo:

Fifty years. Five editions. Every ten years.


Nebeker:
Is that right?


Ramo:
And now this latest one has got three authors on it now. I gave my royalties, long ago, to universities. As a matter of fact, this one, my wife is a trustee and where I have of course a close relationship is USC, years ago. Now with the most recent edition I suggested that there be no royalties in my name at all because I have had so little to do with it, they wanted my name still on it and at least fifty percent of the book is the same words. I can't understand them now even though I recognize that I wrote them. I open the book and start reading and I say, "Wait a minute now, I've forgotten. I have to go back to where this originated." And pretty soon I have to go back to the beginning and start over: fifty years!


Nebeker:
This is one of the most influential engineering books of the century.


Ramo:
I was told by the publisher, John Wiley, there is no other book. The only book that comes close and it's not in the same category, is Gray's Anatomy. It lasted for years but Gray died, other people modified the book and now if you get a copy of Gray's Anatomy, which is not the book in anatomy, it's a book. You'll find a whole bunch of names on it in addition to Gray that really wrote it. All three of us are alive, the original three Whinnery, then Van Duser, who is retiring about now, he had reached the retirement area. Whinnery is a couple of years younger than I am. So I am going to be 82 in May and he will be 80 or he has just turned 80.


Nebeker:
I wanted to ask how you came to write this book?


Ramo:

Well, I was working in the field.


Nebeker:
But the first edition was in 1944, is that right?


Ramo:
Yes. But the first edition came out in 1944, was the fifth edition. Along 1939-1940, GEI was giving lectures.


Nebeker:
Internally.


Ramo:
Basic physics underlying the frontier electronics of the time and I prepared versions of these lectures in mimeograph form. There was a vice-president of engineering who liked to have General Electric's name on books to help everyone understand that GE was the leader in electricity. There were not that many people on the payroll who were interested in writing a book or could. Some of the most outstanding people had plans for a book; they would never get it done. They really didn't know how about getting a book written, putting themselves in the reader’s position, which is really not easy for everybody. Only a few people are interested and when you put it all together, are going to do it. So I was pressed to put it in the form of a book and when the war came along, there was a more urgent need than ever for the people that had to get into the act. Have these fundamentals in one place, in a readable form and I knew that I was so swamped with things, that I wanted changes, I wanted additions, I wanted to have examples of every principle and Whinnery was taking the course. He was an outstanding student and he was helping me with that. He had a bachelor’s from Berkeley, the typical situation at General Electric, but he was taking these advanced courses, especially with the one that I was responsible for. I would give like four hours a week, ten percent of the time to the educational programs of GE. So I proposed that they let Whinnery take some time off and actually get the dirty work done. Checking all the equations and so on. He worked very hard on it and he was so good he didn't make mistakes; you could rely on his stuff. He understood the stuff so he could get the things lined up and change the location, modify the wording on it. We decided this belongs here but now if you put it here we don't need to add these explanations because it would come there. So he would make little modification in my direction. And he thought I was extremely generous, he was flabbergasted when I insisted that his name should be on the book.


Nebeker:
Were the chapters of the book essentially your lectures?


Ramo:

Yes. At first.


Nebeker:
Filled out.


Ramo:
Filling out was with examples, but also I say as improving it, so it would really be a good book. Lectures tend to be given; some times you give a particular lecture on a subject that needs presenting to these people. Since they don't necessarily have the background you include in the first part of lecture some things. In the book, you already have taken care of Chapter 1, the chapter to review that brings it to their attention and you have to redefine some things that are defined. So when you put in the book you have to modify this and view what's gone before it. I would tell Whinnery, this has to be cut here, cut this and Whinnery would catch me on it - but you can't cut this because that hasn't come up before, it comes up for the first time here. I'd say, it shouldn't, it should have come up earlier. I didn't give a lecture on the subject; I didn't have a copy of the lecture I gave on that. There was a lot of filling to do, and he really did so good a job of it but he felt that it was my book; he was merely an assistant. After I became what amounted to at age 30, an executive, running a group of about twelve very good people because again I had the best people out of these courses, who wanted to come into my group and that was the reason I didn't get moved over to the research lab right away because the head of the general engineering laboratory, this was a special thing for him. He had this group of young people getting a lot of attention around the company. So I decided that I would not have my name on the invention. The people under me, I may give them ideas but I may actually be the inventor, but it would be far better for them to be the inventor because I wanted them to feel that it was their baby, so they would knock themselves out to move it along; make it work. I was trying to select people that were capable of doing that. So I felt a good director would be one that helps those people, that they appreciate it. I particularly didn't like what I observed in universities where the senior professor puts his name on every paper and by now you get twenty names sometimes on a paper that comes out. Everybody has to have his name on the thing because of the “publish or perish” thing in this whole part. In fact, I didn't until a few years ago find my name on an invention. I was a member of the Board of ARCO, Atlantic Richfield, for years, and there was a special little project area going on there that had to be classified that originally one of the people came to me with it, and I said this is good, this is important. The defense department used to know about this and it used to be classified. Then I suggested that they had better get the patent attorneys in because this stuff was new. Sitting there in the meeting with the inventor and his associates, there were two or three others working with it, and they were talking about what is the essence of the invention, and there's the patent attorney and he was not very good, I thought. I said, wait a minute, if this is the idea, you then expand it into a broader claim, you do this with the same approach here, you suggest that you can also do this, you should patent it, you should make that part of the plane. So I was tossing off - again, very easy for me to do - extensions, parallels, corollaries, analogs, and so on to get broader and broader planes. Well, the attorneys said, "Look. Patent law requires that your name be on here because we have to be able to say, I am writing up the minutes of this meetings," and you were inventing these additional things. So suddenly after all these years, forty or fifty years later, here my name goes onto some inventions, but I just made practice. Things will always be. When I was the boss I could determine whether my name not be on it. When I was an advisor, member of the board and it’s their company, then I have to by their rules.


Nebeker:
Could I ask you of your own explanation of why this book made such an impact?


Ramo:
There was all of a sudden the need for electricity to be thought of as a phenomenon that goes from DC up to where it quits being called regular waves and begins to be heat waves or something and you go right on until to get cosmic rays: so X-rays, infrared and so on. Now electrical engineering had to grow from the lower frequencies suitable for power to the higher frequencies suitable for radio up until the full spectrum. Now you need to understand basic physics of electricity differently. A lot of things that seem to be the rules are true down here, for instance, in ordinary radio circuit. Is your background electrical engineering?


Nebeker:
No. But I know a fair amount.


Ramo:
The circuit theory, you have capacitance, inductance, resistors and so on and the RLC, there is nothing in there about radiating. If the frequency is high enough you are going to lose energy by radiation. It's fundamental. It’s just that it is not very important, so you neglect it. In the same way if a mass is not going very fast, the mass does not change with velocity. Relativity it only begins to come in when you begin to get to the higher speeds. You move along here and electricity looks less like circuits, it looks more like light or heat. You have to unify these things, so, naturally, working in this frontier, trying to extend the spectrum. I would give the lectures on the principles of electricity. Electrical phenomena at high frequency: how does it differ from electric phenomena at low frequency? The idea that you could have a wire here or a cable or a pipe and unlike a transmission line, wires connecting your apparatus here to the power, the electricity could be totally on the inside and nothing is felt on the outside. Whereas ordinarily a transmission line you think of the effect, you are not about to touch it, if it's high power. The waves going on the inside, the waves being contained by a glass fiber, all of those things. If I were doing it over again, part of the history, but coming in ten or fifteen years later, arriving at GE, at Cal Tech, by that time other schools into the Cal Tech approach I would be into quantum theory and semiconductors or on the other hand into symbolic logic or computer circuitry as a new frontier field. It was a frontier field, and I was lecturing on it so the book came about and the book was needed. There was no other book. Now Smythe had a book out which was quite different. It had the same basic physics where it overlapped but it was discussed from the standpoint of a physicist.


Nebeker:
I think we have covered a lot of things that I wanted to ask you about. I did want to ask you about this: you have been associated with a lot of professional societies of different sorts, and you have been a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers [IRE] before if merged with AIEE. Were you also a member of AIEE?


Ramo:
Of course. In fact I was probably a member of AIEE before I was a member of IRE. That was sort of a parent organization.


Nebeker:
OK. It was the older of the two.


Ramo:
Even in Utah, there were junior members. If you were studying electrical engineering you would be expected to become a junior member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.


Nebeker:
Was your membership in AIEE and IRE very important to you in your career?


Ramo:

I think I sort of took it for granted. It was important.


Nebeker:
The publications were important to you?


Ramo:
Yes. Well I was writing articles in the Sparkless Fear Gap Volt Meter I&II were my doctorate thesis and appeared in the AIEE. Then of course, my first publications on microwaves appeared in the IEEE and/or - I can't remember which came first but I was in all of those - the Journal of Applied Physics and Physical Review on electromagnetic waves on electron streams. Electron microscopy, electron optics, some of those were in the IRE journals, some of them in. What was the journal?


Nebeker:
The main IRE journal was Proceedings of the IRE.


Ramo:

Proceedings. What was the main AIEE? Electrical Engineering wasn't it?


Nebeker:
That was one of their publications; they also had Transactions and then came different areas.


Ramo:
And the physicists’ journals, Journal of Applied Physics and Physical Review.


Nebeker:
Did you ever go to the meeting of IRE or the AIEE?


Ramo:
Yes, I presented papers at the conventions. In fact I presented the paper while at Cal Tech. Let's see, at Cal Tech there was a national convention in Pasadena, I think it was my third year.


Nebeker:
That was in 1936.


Ramo:
It was in 1935 or 1936. There were three or four days of a convention. There was one evening when there was a Pasadena J.C. band on the stage, and then I came out and played the violin, it was a big change from the big band. There was some affair, it was a young people's affair of some kind, I wrote a skit or something for that. Then at the main sessions Sorenson and I presented a paper on what was my doctorate thesis, only I did most of the presenting, he gave a little introduction, because I had all the data at my fingertips and the slides that I had found and so on. He was not the type of guy who wanted to hog the whole thing. Then I took it for granted, it's about like saying going to school was important to you. That’s what you do. You study electrical engineering and you work in that field and you are member of the organizations, and you publish in it and you got to the meetings.


Nebeker:
It seemed to function fine as far as you could see? Were you pleased with the merger in 1963 of AIEE and IRE?


Ramo:
I think probably the answer is yes. I don't have any recollections specifically of giving it much thought, I assume now for the reason that it happened it occurred to me that it ought to happen. I was totally in favorite of it, as it came as no surprise.


Nebeker:
There were a number of especially IRE people who were not in favor of the merger.


Ramo:
As a matter of fact, it was inevitable if you imagine all applications of electricity again, especially these different parts of the spectrum. The idea of radio engineering, they would have had to change the name from radio to electronics. They would have to have found a way to decide which of the two organizations encompasses things like controls. Which deserves to have the computer, it's not radio engineering, it's switching. Radio is not telephony, you had the Bell Systems technical journal and it had telephony. The truth of the matter is you either had to decide that the key thing is that you are covering of every aspect of electricity. You could have journals of specific specialties, but radio engineering was too narrow. That is why the name radio went out, and electronics largely replaced it.


Nebeker:
Final question about IEEE and since you have been involved so much with public policy, I am particularly interested in your answer. One criticism of IEEE has been is that it has not been more active in public policy questions. A number of times they have taken stands, in the mid 1970s made a study and then took a position on nuclear energy, saying that this should be pursued but IEEE hasn't done a lot of that. And some people have criticized for it not being more outspoken, taking a larger role. How do you feel?


Ramo:
I think I rather strongly feel that IEEE makes its greatest contribution by staying away from the kind of issue that is somewhat more political than it is technical. When I say political I mean it not in a derogatory sense, I mean it as it involves national policy, it involves interaction of technology with society's interests. It involves questions of the government’s proper role as it relates to the free enterprise system or to private activities. First of all, the typical member of the IEEE does not have the background or interest and cannot pretend to expertise in those problems of interaction. I am not saying less so than the lawyers who mostly involved with the law making, I am not saying less so than the medical, typical medic in relationship to health care for the nation, but I like to see issues handled by people most competent to deal with them. Those members of the IEEE that are competent and should be involved in policy making should not expect to do it through the IEEE. To do it through involvement with the government - maybe the national academies are much more suitable for that. The National Academy of Engineering that involves all engineering, then it's like all electricity belongs in one organization instead of trying to separate in the pieces. The National Academy of Engineering is part of the same basic framework created by the Congress that created the National Academy of Sciences, it exists for the purpose of advising of the government. That's the same as saying it exists for the purpose of helping to make policy decisions. You got all engineering and you got it in relationship to the pure academic scientist in the national academies and even with the medical people interested in medicine. The national academies can work with other professional groups but it is asked by the government to study some things and to advise the government. It exists for that purpose. It has no other reason for existing. Some people think it exists to provide a prestigious title for those who are selected as members but as to what the substitute thing is supposed to be doing, it’s supposed to be advising the government. It does not take on jobs with vise TRW or General Electric.


Nebeker:
So IEEE should stick with technical matters and public policy dealt with by?


Ramo:
Now if it turned out to be true sometime in the future that a substantial fraction, not necessarily a majority, but say one-third of the members of the IEEE find that what they were doing in life, what they were working with involves the relationship between the technology and the society. But today most college graduates in engineering leave, and this is only a slight exaggeration, leave without even knowing what engineering is. They study the science underlying engineering; they don't study engineering. It comes as a shock to them when they get out to discover that if they look in the dictionary and read the definition of engineering which is the application of science and technology to provide for the society that if you are going to provide science and technology for the society you would think you’d spend half of your time in college preparing for that by studying the society half of the time and the science and technology the other half of the time. If engineering is supposed to be the profession in which you do things for the society with science and technology, then in college you would learn that by coming to understand what the engineer does in design of a product is to be sure if it's good engineering. If he is doing engineering then he must accomplish a relationship between that product and society in such a way it can produce to do something useful that is worth it for the user to pay for it. And to pay for it for with a high enough fee to cover the cost of manufacture and development and to provide a return on the capital put at risk for the purpose of creating that product. And to do it with a reliability, with adherence to safety and environmental impact. So the combination of the economics and the government rules and regulations and the good of the society and the return on the investment would be right up there in your mind, in four years that's dinned into you. In four years it is not only dinned into you, the professors don't understand it because they are not doing it. Their claim to fame their interest in life is to understand something about the basic underlying science so that they could be on the frontier. They make consult for companies but if they do, they consult on the science of technology that the company is using, if the company has this breadth if its successful, but the scientist who is the consultant doesn't have. An analogy is useful, I think: imagine that we create medical doctors by having them study four or five, maybe even six years of biology. It comes as a big surprise to them when they get out, they find that they go to work in hospitals where there are professional doctors who are treating patients and they spend their time diagnosing and applying drugs and knives to the human body. Now they’d had a course in the human body that they took as an elective so that they could be a broader individual, better father, better citizen. No one told them that they had to have a course on the body if you are going to apply science, knives and drugs to the body, you have to know something about the body, you should be cutting up stiffs and things like that. There is little doubt what you do when you get out, when you study medicine, there is little doubt that you are going to go out and you are going to be doing something about diseases. Now some of them want to do research and take a Ph.D. in biology and they take a medical degree by accident. They want to cure cancer; they want to find out what really goes on in the cell that goes berserk. It has very little to do with diagnosing the patient or applying drugs or knives but at least to do that. They want to do research, if you are going to be a research engineer, if you are going to do research in the laboratory it's all right not to know too much about what engineering really is. But even that fellow, if he is going to do research, he is going to get sponsored to do it. It wouldn't be a bad idea, especially if it takes an engineering degree, to know what engineering is. Now I said, I am going to exaggerate slightly to make the point. Here you have these people that are out now and they are earning a living and they are doing engineering and ninety-five percent of them are interested in science and technology, they are not interested in the relationship to society. If they are so interested they go into government and the policy job or they go into business in the executive position where they have to get related. And to the executive to the chief executive of IBM, which is an example of large and leading electronics concern loaded with IEEE members. The present chairman of IBM is probably not an IEEE member. If he is, it is just because someone insisted that he should apply and he could become a member by the way the definition of eligibility goes. He may have had an engineering degree some place, but basically he is a financial man. He has had the interest in the relationship between technology and society. If he is going to make it in his job he has to be good at that. But he doesn't do by way of IEEE. So that's why I say feel strongly that the IEEE is not well matched to the public policy question. It doesn't mean that it should be totally absent. There are some things where it can maybe be of use and knows it. But mostly it will be horsing around with the tasks and not getting very far and not a great interest to the members. If does take a stand on something, it would be very difficult to see how it finds out what stand it should take and how it presents for a vote on what we do. If sixty percent votes for it, of all those who voted, then is it OK to take a stand or is fifty-one percent? Do we need two-thirds vote in order to take a policy stand? Interesting one that interests IEEE members and it is up now for consideration in the Senate and the House and there is this program spending now several hundred million dollars a year in the Department of Commerce, for the government to sponsor engineering product design to be sure that America holds its own in competition and where it presumably is believed that private industry won't do it alone. Now the Republicans, most of them are saying, this is a free enterprise system, the government won't pick the right fields and it doesn't have the to decide it, which they are to run them, and the government money - 400 millions - is pittance compared with the money being spent by industry privately on exactly the same kind of thing. There are some things where the size of the risk, the amount of money to be invested, the length of time it takes is totally unsuitable even for the biggest corporations. Boeing's net worth is not big enough for them to take the risk to design a supersonic commercial airliner to go to orient and South Africa and Australia and South America from the United States. It is a fifty billion dollar project, far bigger than the net worth. If it is going to happen the government will have to do it. Nuclear power was in that category, some things about space, obviously also some things about national defense programs. But where does the government start and where does it stop? Put this to the IEEE members and if they are working for a company that has a contract for the company therefore maintaining that Department of Commerce program. If not and they think that the company is being taxed and would have more money to spend for the research program than I would vote the other way. It is like the question put recently to selected people about whether or not our foreign aid program is too big? Did you know that something like 87% of the people asked whether the United States is spending too much money on foreign aid and said we are indeed spending too much money. How much are we spending? What fraction of our budget goes to foreign aid? The average guess was 15% by these people. How much do you think do you will be willing to feel is enough, the right amount, it shouldn't go below 3%, that was the average. Actually we are spending 1% for foreign aid. Now with the IEEE if you ask them questions on some of these things, most of the IEEE members wouldn't know how much money is going into things that ought to be stopped because a free enterprise system could do them better. They don't interest themselves that much in it.


Nebeker:
OK. I have taken a lot of your time and I appreciate it.