Sol, Steve, Si … and Hsieh


The first-ever USC engineering course was offered a century ago, at a time when things we take for granted today, such as electricity, automobiles and refrigeration, didn’t exist in most of the world — they were a figment of a “magical” vision of the future. Not surprisingly, that first course was on electrical power. A hundred years later, engineering and technology have truly transformed the world, ushering in tremendous advances that have helped reduce extreme poverty, increase life expectancy, connect people instantly around the world and bring a global understanding of humanity’s common destiny. This exponential pace of transformation carries the name of Moore’s law, which, though based on electronics, is in fact widely applicable.

Electrical engineering at USC has been a crucial contributor to this technological evolution. In his book “A Remarkable Trajectory,” Professor Emeritus George A. Bekey documents many of the seminal names and their impact in USC Viterbi’s and EE’s history. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the naming of the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, I want to single out three colossal figures who left us prematurely this year: Sol Golomb, Steve Sample and Si Ramo.

In a most fundamental way, and seemingly effortlessly through his radiating brilliance, Sol Golomb built a field; attracted, mentored and promoted talented colleagues; and created a culture of excellence that continues today. It is unlikely there would have been an Andrew Viterbi at USC without Sol Golomb. Or Bill Lindsey. Or Lloyd Welch. The list is long.

Steve Sample, the indomitable and visionary 10th USC president, also an electrical engineer by training, used his acuity and talent to transform USC to a research university of global prominence. It was during his tenure that the naming of the Ming Hsieh Department became a reality. With his engaging, persuasive manner, Steve attracted talented and loyal alumni to help place the university on a soaring trajectory.

Finally, this column would be woefully incomplete without mention of one of the most brilliant electrical engineers of our times, Si Ramo. Through a Presidential Chair appointment, Si became part of USC Viterbi in the latter part of his amazing life, although we had long, strong and enduring relationships with the companies he built, including TRW and Northrop Grumman. An inventor of true brilliance and phenomenal insight, an entrepreneur par excellence and a genuine renaissance man, Si devoted his career to the advancement of technology, national defense and human prosperity. On his 95th birthday, in 2008, I had the privilege of creating a USC Viterbi LifeTime Achievement Award for Si Ramo. The citation was read by Andrew Viterbi; the award was bestowed by Steven Sample. Said Si in his acceptance speech: “Thank you. You are giving me a Lifetime Award today when I am 95. But what award will you give me 10 years from now, when I am 105?!”

Which brings us to Ming Hsieh. Following a different but equally exhilarating life trajectory, Ming transcended cultures across oceans and across history. He has left an indelible mark on technology through innovations that have earned him induction to the National Academy of Engineering, an organization co-founded by Si Ramo. An EE alum, Ming deeply understands the empowering promise of electrical engineering to make life more “magical” for future generations — and is generously and unconditionally supporting it at USC. The Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, with its unparalleled history and awesome talent, 100 years after the subject was first taught at USC, and 10 years after the department was named, is solidly positioned to advance it.