William Rambo, a pioneer in radar jamming, is dead at 90
William "Bill" Rambo, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering who developed a jammer to counter German anti-aircraft radar during World War II, died peacefully at his home in Morrison, Colo., on Feb. 22 after a brief illness. He was 90.
"He loved Stanford passionately," said his daughter Katherine Rambo. His commitment was tested during the late 1960s, when his classified research made him a target of the student anti-war movement.
As an associate dean of engineering during the Vietnam War, Rambo provided leadership during difficult years, recalled James Gibbons, professor (research) of electrical engineering. "He had the rare gift for dealing with complicated, emotionally charged issues with unusual compassion and understanding of multiple points of view."
Rambo was born Oct. 3, 1916, in San Jose, Calif., to F. Ralph Rambo and Katherine Coker Rambo. He spent much of his life in the area. After two years at San Jose State University, Rambo transferred to Stanford, where he earned a bachelor's degree in engineering in 1938 and an engineer's degree in 1941. He married Edith Dillingham in April of the same year.
A radio man, Rambo's involvement in U.S. military research shaped his professional life. A few months after he completed his engineer's degree, a former professor, Frederick Terman, recruited him to the new Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard. From 1942 to 1946, Rambo developed oscillators and amplifiers for ultra-high frequencies as part of the lab's mission to develop countermeasures to radar.
Rambo developed an anti-aircraft radar jammer nicknamed "Carpet." It was first used during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, marking the first time U.S. forces deliberately jammed radar in combat, according to historian Stewart Gillmor. Aircraft equipped with Carpet suffered half the losses of aircraft without it, he said. Rambo's work at the Radio Research Laboratory resulted in 21 invention disclosures and eight patent applications.
After the war, Rambo continued his government research at the Airborne Instruments Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. He never returned to school to earn a doctorate. "It used to amuse him that people called him Dr. Rambo," Katherine Rambo said.
In 1951, Rambo returned to Stanford as a research associate, once again under Terman. In 1958, he succeeded Terman as director of the Stanford Electronics Laboratories, where he led much of the research done at the university for federal sponsors, including a large portion of the classified work done on campus at the time. "He had a great ability to take the basic research done at a university and translate it into applications useful for protecting the country," said Bill May, who was a research engineer in the Stanford Electronics Laboratories. In 1957, Rambo received a letter of commendation from the U.S. Air Force for this work. That same year, Rambo was appointed professor of electrical engineering.
In 1961, Rambo accepted additional responsibility as an associate dean of engineering. Toward the end of the 1960s, the tension between the secrecy necessary in classified work and the openness needed for academic research increased.
In 1969, Stanford ceased classified work in response to anti-war protests. At this time, Rambo and electrical engineering Professor Mike Villard, a former colleague at Harvard's Radio Research Laboratory, transferred the classified research they led on campus to the Stanford Research Institute, now called SRI International. Rambo remained at Stanford and continued to teach and lead Stanford engineering organizations until his retirement in 1972.
In addition to his academic responsibilities, Rambo consulted for many federal government agencies, including the National Security Agency and the CIA. "It seemed like he was always flying to Washington for one reason or another," said his other daughter, Anne Dahle. He was a fellow of the Institute of Radio Engineers, Sigma Xi (an honorary scientific research society) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Rambo remained active after his retirement. "Bill was unusual in many respects," said Rambo's former student Eckhard Schulz. "He never lost the urge to investigate, to invent, even still in retirement." Rambo served on the boards of directors of several companies, including Argosystems, later acquired by Boeing, and ESEA, a California corporation of which Schulz is president. In 1981, Rambo received the Pioneer Award from the Association of Old Crows, a group devoted to developing a strong national defense through electronic warfare and information operations.
Rambo believed that the highest achievements of humankind were education and knowledge, Katherine Rambo said. With two other Stanford graduates, he donated the money to build the Hugh H. Skilling Auditorium in honor of a former professor who taught circuit theory. The campus building opened in 1969.
After the death of his wife in 1988, Rambo moved to Morrison, Colo., to be closer to family.
Rambo is survived by daughters Katherine Rambo of Oro Valley, Ariz., and Anna Rambo Dahle of Morrison, Colo., and two granddaughters.
Jesse Boyett Anderson is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.