Friday December 29 2000 01:15 PM EST
Passing of a wireless pioneer

By David Coursey  Zdnet News

Remembering a forgotten wireless pioneer.

"The man who brought the world such indispensable wireless communications concepts and devices as the walkie-talkie, pager, and cordless telephone has died." That's the lead sentence of an email I just received from a ham radio news service I subscribe to.

The story is so interesting and the accomplishment so great that I'd like to share it with you. First, though, I'll need to shut off the cordless phone, put the pager in silent mode, and turn down the volume on the walkie-talkie I use in my volunteer work. It is startling to realize how much I owe to the inventions of a guy I didn't even know about. And now he's dead.

His name was Al Gross. His ham radio call sign was W8PAL, and he died four days before Christmas at his home in Sun City, Ariz.

Here's the rest of the email:

"Gross obtained his amateur radio license in 1934 at the age of 16. His early interest in amateur radio helped set his career choice while he was still a teenager.

"Gross pioneered the development of devices that operated in the relatively unexplored VHF and UHF spectrum above 100MHz. His first invention was a portable hand-held radio transmitter-receiver.

"Developed in 1938 while he was still in high school in Cleveland, he christened it the 'walkie-talkie.' The device caught the attention of the US Office of Strategic Services -- the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS recruited Gross, and this led to the invention of a two-way air-to-ground communications system used by the military behind enemy lines during the World War II. The system allowed OSS agents to communicate with high-flying aircraft.

"After World War II, Gross set up Gross Electronics Inc to design and build various communications products, some of them under government contracts. He also launched Citizens Radio Corporation to design, develop and manufacture personal wireless transceivers.

"Cartoonist Chester Gould asked if he could use Gross' concept of a miniaturized two-way radio in his Dick Tracy comic strip. The result was the Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio.

"During the 1950s and 1960s, Gross secured several patents for various portable and cordless telephone devices. In September 1958, Gross Electronics received FCC type approval for mobile and handheld transceivers for use on the new Class D 27-MHz Citizens Band.

"'If you have a cordless telephone or a cellular telephone or a walkie talkie or beeper, you've got one of my patents,'Gross once said. He added that if his patents on those technologies hadn't run out in 1971, he'd have been a millionaire several times over.

"Over the years, Gross worked as a communications specialist for several large companies. Since 1990, he had worked as a senior engineer for Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE:ORB - news) and was still on the payroll there when he died.

"Gross received numerous awards and honors during his distinguished career, including the 1992 Fred B. Link Award from the Radio Club of America, the 1997 Marconi Memorial Gold Medal of Achievement from the Veteran Wireless Operators Association, and the 1999 Edwin Howard Armstrong Achievement Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In 1998, he received Eta Kappa Nu's Vladimir Karapetoff Eminent Members' Award in recognition of his pioneering contributions to the engineering of personal wireless communications.

"Earlier this year, he won the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation and for playing a major role in the wireless personal communications field."

As his IEEE biography put it: "It is clear that Mr. Gross was a true pioneer and helped lead the way to today's wireless personal communications revolution."

Gross was, of course, only one of many communications pioneers. Yet his accomplishments are all around us. Someday our children will be startled to learn of the deaths of some Internet pioneer or maybe someone from Xerox PARC--an Al Gross of our age.

Editors Note

I had the good fortune to correspond several times with Al Gross in his last year before his passing. His vision lives on with us in our daily use of the electronic products we have come to rely on and now take for granted. He will be missed, the following past articles are a tribute to his many accomplishments.


Retrocom is proud to bring you several articles about one of radio communications modern day pioneer's. Further research into the work of Mr. Gross has verified that he is indeed the Father of CB radio. A case could also be made that the F.R.S. service of today very closely resembles the vision of Al Gross with handheld transceivers operating in the 460 MHz band.

Al Gross Biography

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Al Gross is a true pioneer of the wireless personal communications revolution and played a major role in establishing miniaturized portable communications. His efforts led to one of the first walkie-talkies in the early 1940’s (just prior to WW II) and to development of the first pager system (in New York’s Jewish Hospital) in 1950. He also successfully lobbied the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create the Personal Radio license spectrum in 1948, which later became citizens band radio.

In 1934 (at age 16) Al obtained his amateur radio license, and it is still current today. At the time, portable wireless communications did not exist, and very little knowledge about radio communications, circuits, designs, and propagation existed above 100 megahertz. Frequencies above 100 MHz is where Al focused his development efforts. He developed circuits and components for miniaturized portable communications that were unheard of for that era. He also succeeded in the design and construction of several battery-operated, portable, hand-held transceivers with corresponding compact antennas.

In the late 1930’s, Al discovered a means to cause miniature vacuum tubes to operate in the unexplored portion of the radio frequency spectrum above 200 megahertz. Two of the models operated at 300 megahertz These two hand-held models were used many times to successfully communicate with other amateur operators over a distance of 30 miles. After the onset of World War II, an amateur radio operator within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) knew of Al’s hand-held walkie-talkies; from this disclosure Al was asked to come to the OSS headquarters in Washington to demonstrate the radios. From this meeting, the "Joan Eleanor" two-way radio system was proposed allowing OSS agents in occupied countries and Germany to communicate with two-way radio equipment in high-flying aircraft. Al headed up this project and developed a sensitive receiver circuit that could be miniaturized. Al met with Major E.H. Armstrong late in 1943 at his office in Alpine, New Jersey. Armstrong suggested a super regenerative circuit that could be used, and Mr. Gross implemented this concept (with modification) in both the transmitter and receiver. The Joan/Eleanor project, Al Gross’s creation, was classified "Top Secret" by the OSS and was made public in 1976.

Late 1944 in a classified meeting with the Chief of the Radio Intelligence Branch (FCC), two of Gross’s hand-held transceivers were demonstrated before the FCC Chairman and with the Commissioners. Inspired by the demonstration, FCC Commissioner E. K. Jett published an article "Phone by Air" in the Saturday Evening Post (July 1945) describing personal two-way radio communications for the public use. Mr. Gross launched Citizens Radio Corporation to design, develop and manufacture personal wireless transceivers and also started Gross Electronics to design and build other communications products. (Gross Electronics was under contract to test and develop life saving equipment for emergency use for the U.S. Maritime Commission and the War Shipping Administration. In 1948 the company was contracted by the U.S. Coast Guard to design and build a hand-held transceiver operating at 401 megahertz TRC-156.)

On March 23, 1948 at the President’s Luncheon of the Institute of Radio Engineers (now IEEE), FCC Chairman announced FCC type approval of the first personal wireless transceiver for the public. It was at this affair that Major Armstrong offered his congratulations to Mr. Gross and his company.

In 1950 Al demonstrated before the FCC the possible use of a hand-held transceiver as a "cordless remote telephone", which became the first paging system of its kind. (Restrictions in place at the time prevented the application of this technology for the public.) In September 1958 Gross Electronics Co. received FCC type approval for mobile and hand-held transceivers for use on the Class D 27megahertz frequency allocation. In 1959 Gross Electronics Co. designed and manufactured a battery operated unattended weather station used by the U.S. Navy that was parachuted into the Antarctic.

It is clear that Mr. Gross was a true pioneer, and helped lead the way to today’s wireless personal communications revolution. Today, Mr. Gross remains an active engineer at age 81 never missing an opportunity to tell a group of engineers or students about the excitement of wireless and about the tenacity required to invent. He is an inspiration to those who meet him, and he carries with him a terrific legacy that is worthy of recognition by the IEEE.


The Walkie-Talkie

In 1938, Al Gross invented the walkie-talkie; in 1949, he invented the telephone pager; his other inventions include what became the basic technology of cordless and cellular phones.

Born in Toronto in 1918, Alfred J. Gross grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He was captivated by radio at the age of nine, and by the time he was twelve, he had turned his basement into an amateur radio headquarters, thanks to equipment gleaned from junkyards.

While enrolled in the Electrical Engineering program at what is now Case Western Reserve University, Gross resolved to invent a portable radio that could transmit and receive at short range over land. By 1938, Gross had succeeded in inventing and patenting the hand-held, two-way personal radio, or "walkie-talkie."

Gross was soon recruited by the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS); he worked for them throughout World War II. In 1941, Gross designed a ground-to-air communications system that was virtually impossible to monitor, even behind enemy lines. Although Gross' system was not declassified until 1976, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff called it one of the most successful wireless intelligence gathering methods ever employed.

After the War, Gross formed a company, Citizens Radio Corporation, to produce two-way radios for personal use; in 1948, his company's equipment was the first to receive FCC approval for use in the new "Citizens' Band." Gross sold most of his units to farmers and to the US Coast Guard (for use in tending buoys); he also licensed the technology to various electronics companies.

In 1949, Gross had his second major breakthrough: he adapted his two-way radios for cordless remote telephonic signaling. That is, he invented and patented the telephone pager, by building discriminating circuitry into a pocket-sized wireless receiver that responded selectively to specific signals. Gross intended for his invention to be used by doctors; so he attended a medical convention in Philadelphia that year. Unfortunately, none of those healthcare professionals were impressed: most said that the beeping device would upset the patients; and some doctors even worried that it would interrupt their golf game.

In the 1950s, Gross tried, again in vain, to interest US telephone companies in his inventions and ideas for mobile telephony. Bell Telephone was not interested, and other companies were afraid of Bell's monopoly on transmission lines.

So Gross continued to invent, earning at least a dozen patents for his own company and for the US government, through the 1950s and '60s. Later, he began doing research for large corporations, such as Sperry and General Electric, as a specialist in microwave communications. Since 1990, he has been Senior Principle Engineer at Orbital Sciences Corporation's Chandler, Arizona facility, where he directs the analysis of various electromagnetic elements of aerospace, satellite and military systems.

At 80 years old, Gross is still working full-time; he also works on personal projects. He has won numerous honors for his pioneering work, including a Commendation from President Reagan (1981), the IEEE's Century of Honors Medal (1984), and the Marconi Gold Medal (1995). But Gross' greatest enjoyment comes from the presentations he frequently gives to local elementary and high school students on technology and invention. Al Gross is keenly aware that his patents expired long before the public was ready for CB radio, cell phones and pagers, but does not allow that to bother him. When he says, "If I still had the patents on my inventions, Bill Gates would have to stand aside for me," it is with a smile, not a scowl.


Fascination of radio still a lure for walkie-talkie inventor

Assistant Editor, The Institute

CHANDLER, Ariz., USA--As a nine-year-old boy aboard a steamboat cruising the Great Lakes in the early 1900s, Al Gross couldn't help but be fascinated by the ship he was on. While underway he set out to explore the boat and investigate its secrets, roaming its decks and poking into its rooms.

When he reached the top deck he heard an odd clacking noise coming from one of the rooms, a noise that he'd never heard before. It was a sound that would drive his life and career for the next 67 years.

"I got up to the top deck and I came near the radio room and I heard the noise of the spark transmitter," Gross recalled. "I looked in the door and I saw the radio operator and all his radio gear, and, boy, did that impress me."

The radio operator motioned Gross into the room and sat the young boy on his lap, placing the radio earphones on his head. "I heard the sound of wireless telegraphy," Gross said.

Long after the cruise was over, the clicking sounds he had heard fascinated Gross. He tried to learn as much about wireless telegraphy as he could, although there wasn't much published about the subject at the time. Soon, though, he'd convinced his father to buy him his first radio set.

"My father took me to a radio store and gave me just enough money to buy a crystal set," Gross said. "With the minor instructions I got from the man who ran the store, I put up an aerial and that's when I heard radio, and that hooked me. That got to me. I had to learn more about that technology."

Gross quickly discovered the amateur radio band and found other people with his same fascination actually broadcasting on the air. Listening in on the conversations, he tracked down a local operator, went to his house and asked the man to teach him about radio. The man was happy to discuss his hobby and introduced Gross to the world of amateur radio.

As his interest in radio grew, Gross began to frequent junkyards, scavenging equipment that he put together in his basement workshop. By the age of 12 he decided to learn radio code and become an amateur operator himself. Although he failed his operator's test the first time he took it, Gross said that only drove him to study harder.

He not only passed the test but began to learn more about the mechanics of radios as well. He took metalworking class and by age 15 was building his own radio chassis. At the time, he said, he knew more about radio than his teachers.

"Then I decided to make it not only a hobby but a career," Gross said.

Gross focused his career on creating a reliable method of two-way communication for people who were walking or traveling, envisioning a time when radio would be used for personal communication. He applied the same enthusiasm he had for his hobby to what had become his career, and between 1934-41 he successfully developed the hand-held "walkie-talkie."

His pioneering work with two-way personal radio paved the way for cordless and cellular phones as well as pocket pagers, items that have become ubiquitous in today's society. "If you have a cordless telephone or a cellular telephone or a walkie talkie or beeper, you've got one of my patents," Gross said.

Gross added that if his patents on those technologies hadn't run out in 1971, he'd be a millionaire several times over by now.

During his career, Gross has received many awards and honors for his work, and at the IRE President's Luncheon in 1948 he received the first Federal Communications Commission approval for personal radio hand-held transceivers. He became an IEEE fellow in 1982, and before that he had even been granted a private audience with Pope John Paul in 1980.

Today Gross makes his home here where he works as a senior engineer for Orbital Sciences Corp. His goals have changed somewhat, and Gross said what he now enjoys most is sharing his knowledge with students and other people interested in the origins of radio. "People learn from the old guy who did it the hard way," he explained.

Now 77, Gross said he was no plans to retire and called himself "the guy that will die with his boots on." He is still fascinated by the sounds he first heard on the steamboat of his youth, and he enjoys the fact that ideas he was working on when he was 14 years old have become common technology.

"Even though I'm not Marconi, I did my thing the way he did his thing, and I'm having fun," Gross said. "I'm not going to retire, I'm going to have fun."