Gross, Alfred J

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Gross, Alfred J.

American Inventor

Alfred J. Gross was the inventor of several handheld communication devices, including the first walkie-talkie. Gross began his life-long romance with wireless communications at age nine during a cruise on Lake Erie. While exploring the ship, Gross met the radio operator and was invited into the radio room to listen to the transmission. The sound of wireless telegraphy fascinated him so much that he begged his parents to buy him a crystal set, an early radio.

Shortly thereafter, Gross began to build a ham radio from scavenged junkyard materials. By age fifteen he was fabricating his own metal radio chassis in a metal working class. A year later he earned his amateur operator's license. He was now a ham radio operator. The next step for Gross was to build a handheld devicethe walkie-talkieto communicate. He wanted to talk with other ham operators while on the move.

His hobby began to develop into a potential career. By 1938, while a student in electrical engineering at Case Western Reserve, in Cleveland, Ohio, Gross had succeeded in inventing a two-way handheld radio using miniaturized components. He then started exploring ways to use frequencies above 100 MHz. By the end of the 1930s, he had built two models that operated at 300 MHz and could transmit a distance of 38 kilometers (30 miles). As World War II began, Gross' invention would take on a critical function.

In 1941 Gross was invited to demonstrate his walkie-talkie to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That meeting resulted in citizen Gross becoming Captain Gross and the initiation of the Joan/Eleanor project, a two-way ground to air radio system for military and espionage use. This system would enable personnel on the ground and behind enemy lines to communicate with high-flying airplanes. These transmissions could not be intercepted by the enemy as the radios operated at higher frequencies then the standard available transceivers. This feature enabled undetected gathering and reporting of enemy military movements.

Long after the war, Gross received recognition for his work. His contribution was cited as significantly shortening the war through the successful gathering of intelligence. The net result was the saving of countless lives. This "Top Secret" project was not declassified until 1976.

After the war, Gross set up two companies: Citizens Radio Corporation, which focused on the designing, development, and manufacture of personal wireless transceivers; and Gross Electronics, which designed and manufactured other communications products. Both companies were based in Cleveland, Ohio.

For the next twenty years, Gross developed circuitry for various wireless devices. In 1948 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the two-way radio, "Citizens' Band," for personal use. Initially, these radios were used by farmers and the U.S. Coast Guard. A year later, Gross invented and patented circuitry that responded selectively to specific signals for use as a pocket-sized receiver, the pager. Physicians were his targeted audience for the use of such pagers. However, the initial reaction of the medical community was unenthusiastic because the device beeped. Medical professionals anticipated that the noise would annoy patients and might even interrupt the physician's golf game. However, Gross lived to see his pager not only accepted but also become a necessary device for many professionals and service providers.

Gross's invention also received unexpected fame when it was featured in the Dick Tracy comic book series, developed by Chester Gould. The cartoonist incorporated Gross' idea of a miniaturized two-way radio into the series as a two-way wrist radio. Then, in the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy parachuted an unmanned battery-operated weather station into the Antarctic that was designed and manufactured by Gross Electronics. Gross continued to develop and patent various cordless and portable telephonic devices through the 1960s.

After closing his companies, Gross did not retire but continued to conduct research as a specialist in microwave communications for Sperry Corporation, General Electric, and Westinghouse as well as other large corporations. At seventy-two he became the senior principal engineer for the Orbital Science Corporation while also continuing to work on personal projects. He also continued to give presentations to elementary and high school students on technology and inventions.

Although his numerous patents expired before Gross could realize the full material rewards for his efforts, he is quoted as observing, without rancor, that, "If I still had the patents on my inventions I would be as rich as Bill Gates." For Gross the true reward was the ability to continue being productive throughout his life. He never lost his zest for exploring and expanding wireless technology and sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with others.

see also Bell Labs; Cellular Technology; Internet; Telecommunications; Wireless Technology.

Bertha Kugelman Morimoto


Saxon, Wolfgang. "Al Gross, Inventor of Gizmos with Potential, Dies at 82." New York Times, January 2, 2001.