Ralph Vanderlipp, electrical engineer, dies

Work spanned eras from World War II to the Hubble Space Telescope

November 07, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Ralph Vanderlipp, an electrical engineer whose work spanned the eras from World War II to the space age and into the computer age, died Nov. 3 of leukemia at Gilchrest Hospice Care in Towson. The long-time Columbia resident was 83.

From serving as an electronics and radar technician on a cargo ship during the waning days of World War II to helping interpret data from the Hubble Space telescope, Mr. Vanderlipp spent decades on the cutting edge of electronics technology.

"If you were to look up 'electrical engineer' in the dictionary, you would see his picture," said Bill Anderson, who was a young aerospace engineer working under contract for Lockheed-Martin when he first met Mr. Vanderlipp and considered him a mentor. "He understood engineering fundamentals probably to the level where he could have written a textbook or been a teacher in an engineering school. He knew what worked, and what didn't work. And he made sure we knew what didn't work."

A native of East Orange, N.J., Mr. Vanderlipp traced his love of electronics back to childhood, when his parents gave him an electric train set. While in high school, he installed an "electric-eye parent detector" in the upstairs hallway of his parents' home, his son Neal Robert Vanderlipp said. Designed to alert young Ralph to his approaching parents, thus giving him time to turn off his radio and get back to his studies, the device was eventually removed by his father — but not before it helped point the way to an eventual career.

"And that was in the late 1930s," said Neal Vanderlipp. "I don't know how long it was operating … but I think he was proud of it. He thought he was pretty clever at the time."

Mr. Vanderlipp's professional career began inauspiciously enough, as a stock clerk in a bookstore in Montreal, Canada, where he attended high school. After graduating, he returned to the U.S. and joined the military in 1944, serving on the USS Algol. Returning stateside, he took advantage of the G.I. bill to earn an engineering degree from Ohio State University in 1949. After marrying and moving to Baltimore, he went to work as an electrical engineer for Bendix radio in Towson, where he would remain into the 1960s.

While at Bendix's Joppa Road plant, Mr. Vanderlipp helped develop radar and antenna tracking systems. Among his projects was the worldwide antenna network that was used to track the Mercury spacecraft that took John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom and other astronauts into space in the early 1960s.

"When they brought John Glenn in for a debriefing after his flight, he sat behind Glenn in the debriefing room," Neal Vanderlipp said. "He always said that when John Glenn walked in, he had quite a presence."

After leaving Bendix, Mr. Vanderlipp worked as a quality control manager for Vitro Electronics in Silver Spring, where his projects included designing specialized radios for soldiers in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, he took a job with Bendix Field Engineering in Columbia as a manager.

Also in the 1970s, to help keep abreast of changes in his field, Mr. Vanderlipp enrolled in computer programming courses at the University of Maryland, College Park. He continued lending his expertise to a variety of projects, developing a system for transmitting EKG results to hospitals from Towson Fire Department ambulances, automating data collection for USDA labs in Beltsville and rehabbing NASA's worldwide tracking network in preparation for the Space Shuttle program.

Mr. Vanderlipp retired in 1990. But his love of electricity and the wonders it could accomplish never faded; among his greatest passions remained the model train hobby his parents introduced him to as a young child. And he still operated the model train set his parents gave him, which so far has delighted four generations of the Vanderlipp family.

A steadfast Orioles fan, Mr. Vanderlipp enjoyed music and doing the daily Baltimore Sun crossword puzzle. He also enjoyed helping out at the Forget Me Not Factory gift shop in Ellicott City, owned by his wife and daughter, Nancy Ellen Vanderlipp Gibson.

Mr. Vanderlipp is survived by his wife of 60 years, the former Janet Ellen Reif. He also is survived by three children, Kenneth Paul Vanderlipp of Ellicott City; Nancy Ellen, also of Ellicott City, and Neal Robert of Tracys Landing in Anne Arundel County. He is also survived by a sister, Doris Vanderlipp Manley of Cherry Valley, N.Y., three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

In keeping with his wishes, Mr. Vanderlipp was cremated; there was no viewing or funeral service. The family asks that memorial contributions be sent to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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