Al Gross (1918-2000) was way ahead of his time. Gross introduced the wireless telephone, pager, and similar gadgets in the 1940s and 1950s, long before wireless became a worldwide buzzword. “I was born too soon,” Gross once told a reporter, according to an article by David Hawley in the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota. “If I still had the patents on my inventions, Bill Gates would have to stand aside for me.”
Gross was born Alfred J. Gross on February 22, 1918, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His father was a Russian immigrant tailor. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Gross was an infant.
When Gross was nine and his family was on a cruise along Lake Erie, he wandered into the steamship's radio room. “I heard the noise of the spark transmitter, and I saw the radio operator and all his radio gear,” he said, as quoted in London's Daily Telegraph. Boy, did that impress me.” The operator invited Gross into the room and briefly let him don the headphones. From then on, Gross was hooked.
At age 12, Gross assembled a ham radio with parts he took from a junkyard and assembled in his basement. He earned his amateur operator's license four years later. His next progression would be a so-called walkie-talkie, when he found his basement equipment clunky. “I wanted to walk around and talk to other hams,” he said, according to the New York Times.
After some experimenting, in 1938 he completed what was essentially the prelude to the citizens band radio. He used Phineas Thaddeus Veeblefetzer as his handle, based on offbeat inventor Phineas Fogg from the book Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. His ham radio signature was W8PAL.
Gross graduated in 1939 with a degree in electrical engineering from the Case School of Applied Sciences in Cleveland, Ohio, the predecessor to Case Western Reserve University. Meanwhile, he kept working to improve his portable receivers, with an eye toward a breakthrough—using frequencies above 100 megahertz (MHz). By 1938 he had invented and patented the walkie-talkie, making miniature vacuum tubes that operated between 200 and 300 MHz. “Convinced that trial and error worked, Gross spent hours in his workshop, fiddling with radio parts to improve performance. To get the clearest signal, he created small transceivers using circuit boards he etched himself, something unheard of,” Reinhardt Krause wrote in Investor's Business Daily.
“He was a tinkerer, a true experimenter. He just fiddled with things. He was a freethinking person. He just played with things. He thought anything was possible. It just hadn't been done yet,” Fred Maia told Investor's Business Daily. Maia for 25 years was editor of the W5YI Report, a ham radio newsletter.
Military Took Interest During War
Word of Gross's achievements filtered to the U.S. military by the onset of World War II. The communications unit of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was eager to develop a ground-to-air system and recruited Gross. The inventor won over General William J. Donovan, who converted him from a civilian to a captain. “Donovan liked the idea,” Gross said in the New York Times. By 1941 Gross had designed military ground and air units, which he called “Joan” and “Eleanor,” respectively. They communicated with each other through Hertzian radio waves, working at 260 MHz, which enemies could not penetrate.
The units had a roughly 30-mile range. The ground unit had a transceiver weighing just three-and-a-half pounds, a collapsible antenna, and two B and two D batteries for power. “It could easily be carried and hidden by a soldier on hostile ground,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MIT School of Engineering wrote on its Web site. “The airborne unit, carried most often in British ‘Mosquito’ bombers, was more complicated, heavier, and fitted with an adjustable, external antenna to transmit and receive at prearranged polarization.”
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff called it among the best intelligence-gathering methods ever. In 1944 and 1945, the last two years of World War II, intelligence teams in the Netherlands and Germany were able to signal Mosquito planes six miles above them. “The device later formed the basis for all kinds of wireless communications,” the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Communications Society wrote on its Web site.
Ran Successful Businesses after War
When World War II ended, Gross launched Gross Electronics, which designed and constructed communications products, including those under government contract. Gross also founded Citizens Radio Corporation, which made personal wireless receivers, after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated him frequencies for personal radio service. In 1948 his company received FCC approval to use its “Citizens Band” equipment. Gross himself sold roughly 100,000 units, mostly to farm owners and to the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, he licensed the technology to electronics companies. He also gave cartoonist Chester Gould permission to use Gross's concoctions in his detective comic strip Dick Tracy, paving the way for the Dick Tracy two-way radio.
Gross surfaced with yet another innovation in 1949. He adapted the two-way radios for cordless remotes. “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,” according to the MIT Web site. Doctors were initially the inventor's target group, but he faced initial resistance while marketing it at a medical convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “The doctors hated it. They complained that it would interrupt their golf games,” he said in an award acceptance speech at MIT, as quoted in the New York Times. The pagers caught on, however; an estimated 300 million were sold worldwide in 2007.
Throughout the 1950s, Gross vainly attempted to sell U.S. telephone companies on his contraptions but struck out, largely due to opposition from Bell Telephone. The FCC, though, did approve his pager transceivers in 1958. In the 1960s, such companies as Sperry and General Electric hired Gross as a consultant for microwave and other communications systems after Gross gave up as an entrepreneur. “Gross excelled as an inventor. But he knew his shortcomings—one of which was his lack of salesmanship,” Krause wrote. In addition, he provided technology for digital timing devices for Titan, Atlas, and Minuteman missiles while the aerospace industry was in massive growth mode. Gross, who enjoyed teaching, frequently discussed technology and invention with elementary and high school students. He said on MIT's Web site that he enjoyed working with adolescents, “to make them realize that math and science can be great fun, and help them to make a difference through applying their ideas.”
Won Many Awards and Accolades
The patents on Gross's technologies expired in 1971. “I guess I was born 35 years too soon to be a millionaire today, but the thrill of inventing is not just about the money, it's about having fun and making a difference for your fellow humans,” he said, as quoted on MIT's Web site. Accolades poured in over the years, including a commendation from President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Gross also received the Fred B. Link Award from the Radio Club of America in 1992, the Marconi Memorial Gold Medal of Achievement from the Veteran Wireless Operators Association in 1996, and the Edwin Howard Armstrong Achievement Award from the IEEE in 1999. In 2000 he won the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation.
Gross worked during the 1990s as an electrical engineer at Orbital Sciences Corporation in Chandler, Arizona. There he worked on space exploration programs, overseeing the analysis of electromagnetic elements of satellite, military, and aerospace systems. “Al was our radio frequency guru. He knew everyone, everywhere, in the radio world, and was a real joy to work with,” Gross's manager at Orbital Sciences, Chuck Smith, said on the IEEE Communications Society Web site.
Workaholic Disdained Small Talk
Gross kept himself busy and had little spare time. His hobbies included visiting Civil War battlegrounds and searching for relics. Not surprisingly, he designed his own metal detector. He stumped three of four panelists when he appeared on the television game show “To Tell the Truth” in 1977. That year he also met Ethel Stanka in Cleveland while arranging for his tax preparation. He eventually moved to Sun City, Arizona, to join her and they married in 1982. He toured Europe extensively while receiving many awards, and met privately with Pope John Paul II.
While congenial, Gross would often go wordless at a party unless someone asked him about his work. Gross and his wife vacationed every May on the west coast of Florida, where he collected shells and observed sunsets while strolling along the beach. In his later years, he also took an interest in ancient Egyptian history and the history of religion. Though generally serious, Gross would laugh extensively at Three Stooges episodes.
Felt Satisfied as an Innovator
Gross died at age 82 on December 21, 2000, at a hospice in Sun City after a brief illness. He was still on the Orbital Sciences payroll at the time of his death. “His fascination for communication thrilled Gross to the very end,” Krause wrote. The New York Times called Gross the “granddaddy of citizens' band radio, who tinkered with all manner of electronic gear before people just had to have them.” The London Economist added, “Of all the ingenious people who have had a hand in developing the pager, the cordless phone, and other urgent instruments of modern life, Al Gross could take much of the credit, or, if you like, the blame.”
“Al Gross was reluctant to call himself an inventor,” the Economist added. “He doubted whether there was any such being who could devise something on his own from scratch. But if you had thought up something that looked different from anything else, you might be justified in calling it an innovation.” Citing the technological discoveries by Germans in cars and by Britons in computers, the Economist pointed out that the likes of Henry Ford and Bill Gates enriched themselves from marketing them. “It is the entrepreneurs … who tend to profit from discoveries,” the newspaper added.
Hawley added to the plaudits for Gross. “Depending on how they look at it, [working people's] lives are either a little easier or a little more hectic because of an electronics genius named Al Gross.” Noting the death of Gross in almost the same year of Cliff's Notes' academic preparation creator Cliff Hillegass, Hawley added: “Hillegass and Gross died …. You've probably never heard of them, and it's unlikely that their names will show up on the typical yearend obituary lists of notable people. But they have made it to this list of lesser-knowns who touched many lives.”
David Coursey of the Web site Zdnet.news recalled getting an e-mail about Gross shortly after the inventor died. “The story is so interesting and the accomplishment so great that I'd like to share it with you,” Coursey wrote. “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.”
Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 16, 2001.
Economist (London, England), January 6, 2001.
Investor's Business Daily, June 8, 2006.
Pioneer Press (St. Paul, MN), December 31, 2001.
“Al Gross, Inventor of the Gizmos with Potential, Dies at 82,” New York Times, http://www.query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A00E4DA123BF931A35752C0A9679C8B63 (December 13, 2007).
“Al Gross: 2000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award Winner,” Lemelson-MIT Program, http://www.web.mit.edu/invent/a-winners/a-gross.html (December 13, 2007).
“Al Gross, The Walkie-Talkie,” Lemelson-MIT Program, http://www.web.mit.edu/invent/iow/gross.html (December 17, 2007).
“In Memory of Al Gross,” IEEE Communications Society, http://www.comsoc.org/socsTR/org/operation/awards/algrossmem.html (December 17, 2007).
“Passing of a Wireless Pioneer,” Zdnet News, http://www.retrocom.com/Al%20Gross.htm (December 6, 2007).