The undoubted pioneer of mobile wireless telecommunications. Inventor of the walkie-talkie, CB Radio, the mobile phone and the pager.
Al Gross is a personal hero of mine. A true unsung hero, dying a relatively poor man. He later acknowledged if he’d had the foresight to realise the marketing potential of his own ideas in all liklihood he would have topped Bill Gates as the richest man of the 20th century.
A shortlist of his achievments:-
He invented (and named) the walkie-talkie (1938)
He pioneered Citizens' Band (CB) radio (1948)
He invented the telephone pager (1949).
He wrote a detailed paper outlining the principles of cordless and cellular telephony (1951).
He was born in Toronto in 1918 but his family shortly afterwards moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he grew up. At the age of nine, while aboard a steamboat the ship’s radio operator let him listen in to the wireless transmissions and there began his lifelong enthusiam for radio. Three years later at the age of 12 his family’s basement had been turned into a radio station built from equipment salvaged from junkyards. By 16 he had his amateur radio license (W8PAL) which he retained up until his death in December 2000.
In 1936 he entered the BSEE Cleveland’s Case School of Applied Sciences, with a particular interest in frequencies above 100mhz (at that point largely unexplored). Two years later he invented and patented the walkie-talkie.
Becoming increasingly aware of his pioneering efforts, the Communications Group of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) (which became the CIA) engaged his services to develop a portable, two-way, air-to-ground communications system. He worked for the OSS throughout the second world war. In 1941 Gross designed a ground unit, "Joan" and an airborne unit, "Eleanor" to communicate with each other over radio waves in a manner nearly impossible to detect behind enemy lines.
Declassified in 1976, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff called it “….one of the most successful wireless intelligence gathering methods ever employed by the US armed forces”.
After the war, Gross formed his first company “Citizens Radio Corporation” and started manufacturing radios for personal use. This new company was one of the first to obtain FCC approval for use in the newly licensed "Citizens' Band". Citizens Radio Corporation sold nearly 100,000 units to (mostly) farmers and the US coast guard services. His technology was also licensed to other manufacturers.
By building a signal selective circuit into a miniturised receiver in 1949, Gross had invented and patented the telephone pager. His original concept was for a system that could be used by doctors. In the same year he attended a medical convention where nearly all of the medical professionals to who he wished to target his new product ignored the idea on the basis that it would upset patients.
Bell Telephones were also persistently disinterested in Gross’ work, having, in the 1950’s, tried to sell them the idea of mobile telephony. Approaching other company’s proved fruitless, most of them petrified of “stepping on Bell’s toes” given their monopoly of the network lines. He did, at least, finally get approval from the FCC for his pager transceiver system in 1958.
Unfortunately, Gross was too ahead of his time to see profit from his inventions, his patents expiring before CB radio, pagers and cellular phones became popular.
However, he has been rightly showered with awards including personal commendation from the US Defence Department in 1969, President Reagan in 1981, the IEEE’s Century of Honors Medal in 1984, the Marconi Gold Medal in 1995, the Lemelson-MIT lifetime achievement award in 2000 and recognition by the FCC for his work amongst many others.
He continued working in RF design up until his death at age 82 for Orbital Sciences in Chandler, Arizona.
So remember the father of the walkie-talkie and the grandfather of PMR446 next time you hit PTT……
Al Gross Obit in Associated Press
Al Gross recorded interviews and extensive biography