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Dean Everett Wooldridge, 93; Physicist Was Co-Founder of Aerospace Giant TRW

September 22, 2006|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Dean Everett Wooldridge, a physicist who co-founded aerospace giant TRW Inc. and helped develop the nation's intercontinental ballistic missile program, died Wednesday. He was 93.

Wooldridge died of pneumonia at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, his son James said.

The "W" in TRW, Wooldridge was an aerospace pioneer who in retirement became a self-educated expert in neurology, publishing two books -- "The Machinery of the Brain" and "The Machinery of Life" -- that became required reading at many graduate schools.

But Wooldridge was best known for his partnership with Simon Ramo, the "R" in TRW, as they created a company that revolutionized missile technology and helped propel the nation's high-tech weapons development during the early years of the Cold War.

In 1957, Time magazine placed the two on its cover, declaring them the "face of a new age," while also calling them an unlikely pair. Ramo was described as flamboyant, mercurial and prone to speak impulsively, letting his thoughts bounce around, while Wooldridge, wearing gold-rimmed glasses, looked and acted like a professor; calm and introspective. Ramo relaxed by taking mambo lessons; Wooldridge by playing the organ, the article said.

Despite their different personalities, the Caltech classmates collaborated in developing the nation's most complex weapons systems, including the intercontinental ballistic missile, and helped usher in the space age.

Son of an independent oil broker, Wooldridge was born in Chickasha, Okla. He graduated from high school at 14 and received a master's degree from the University of Oklahoma at 20. In 1936, at 23, Wooldridge received a doctorate in physics at Caltech.

Wooldridge immediately went to work at Bell Laboratories in New York, the preeminent research center at the time. During World War II he was put in charge of developing the first airborne fire-control systems. He later headed an Army ordnance study that led to the development of the Nike guided missile.

By 1946, Wooldridge was chief of Bell's physical electronics department. But within months, he decided to head west.

"I began to realize that I was not cut out to be a scholar. I was much more interested in work that would lead to a practical application," he told Time in 1957.

Wooldridge joined Ramo, his former Caltech classmate who had set up a 10-man electronics section at Hughes Aircraft Co., the famed aviation shop started by Howard Hughes.

There Wooldridge and Ramo developed an electronic fire-control system for the Air Force that became a standard for fighter aircraft. They developed the Falcon air-to-air missile, but at the height of their success both decided to walk out and form their own company, Ramo-Wooldridge.

In a semi-autobiography, "The Business of Science," Ramo said Hughes rarely showed up at his Culver City aircraft company, which began to secure bigger and more critical defense contracts. Frustrated and concerned about Hughes' mental state, Ramo said, he and Wooldridge decided to resign after an unusual meeting at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, where Hughes then lived.

"He went on intermittently, haltingly, adding more personal information about what he called his missed life," Simon recounted. "He said, for instance, that he was terribly disturbed, and when disturbed, he could not eat. He said the only food he had had for several days was milk."

The first headquarters of Ramo-Wooldridge was a one-room office in Los Angeles (that later was turned into a barbershop) with a card table, a chair, a telephone and a rented typewriter.

"When we started, we thought that maybe, if we were wildly successful, we might eventually have a staff of 150 people." Ramo said. Before it was acquired by Northrop Grumman Corp. in 2002, TRW had grown to about 100,000 workers.

In 1958, Ramo-Wooldridge merged with its financial backer, Thompson Products, and the company was eventually renamed TRW. Wooldridge was named president with Ramo as an executive director who was focused on technology development.

But four years later, at the age of 49, Wooldridge retired and completely divorced himself from aerospace.

A TRW historical document states that Wooldridge "never really wanted to be a businessman anyway" and didn't like "mundane tasks [such] as cost-cutting."

James A. Wooldridge said Thursday that his father never told him what caused the abrupt change.

"He was a physicist and an engineer, and suddenly he was president of a multinational company when there weren't that many," his son said. "Maybe he got bored."

Well-off financially from TRW stock, Wooldridge spent the next 10 years traveling with his wife before delving deeply into educating himself on neurology, his son said.

"When he dropped it, he dropped it cold, but when he decided to study something, he put everything into it," his son said.

Helene Detweiler, Wooldridge's wife, died in 2001. In addition to James, of Basking Ridge, N.J., Wooldridge is survived by another son, Dean E. Wooldridge Jr. of Las Vegas; a daughter, Anna Lou Eklof of Bailey, Colo.; and three grandchildren.

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