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Go Where Curiosity Takes You


Posted 6/7/2006

Al Gross was in awe.

It was 1927, and Gross and his family were on a cruise on Lake Erie. The 9-year-old sneaked into the radio operator's cabin. There, he befriended the radio operator, who let him listen to the steamers' communications.

Gross was transfixed — people were communicating through the air.

That day on Lake Erie hooked Gross on radio communications.

His fascination inspired Gross to change two-way communication. As a result, he's known as the granddaddy of many wireless products.

His miniature radio gear caught the eye of the U.S. military during World War II and inspired cartoon character Dick Tracy's two-way wristband radio. Gross landed 12 patents for wireless technologies, which became the basis for pagers, cell phones, cordless phones and citizens band radio.

Because his patents expired before big markets developed for his inventions, Gross never became rich — except, as he put it, in experience.

Gross led the way for portable communication devices, says Fred Maia, who for 25 years was editor of a ham radio newsletter, the W5YI Report.

"Al Gross is truly an unsung telecom hero," said Maia. "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."

In 1999, The Lemelson Foundation/Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave Gross a lifetime achievement award for invention and innovation. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) gave Gross a similar award the same year.

Gross made his discoveries when there wasn't much test equipment available for radio communications gear, says Ted Rappaport, professor at Virginia Tech University. So Gross had to develop his own.

"A lot of his activities were trial and error, experimentation, much the way (Guglielmo) Marconi had to invent wireless," said Rappaport. He met Gross at a radio convention in 1990 and the two became friends.

Born in Toronto, Gross grew up in Cleveland. After his Lake Erie encounter, he studied how circuitry worked to produce or pick up radio signals. To understand it better, Gross built a working ham radio at age 12 by salvaging junked parts.

At 16, he turned his parents' basement into an amateur radio station after getting his ham radio license. His enthusiasm with ham radio continued throughout his life. Fans, engineering groups and inventors knew him by his ham radio call sign, W8PAL. Or by his CB handle, Phineas Thaddeus Veeblefetzer, from the eccentric inventor Phineas Fogg in Jules Verne's book "Around the World in 80 Days."

Information Absorption

Gross was always eager to learn more about his passion. As a teenager, he went to the library to read about radio-wave pioneers such as James Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. Later, Gross studied electrical engineering at the Case School of Applied Sciences, near Cleveland.

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.

Before World War II, most radio gear was designed to work at frequencies under 100 MHz. Gross, though, targeted gear working at higher frequencies.

He discovered a way to make miniature vacuum tubes operate at 200MHz to nearly 300MHz.

"When you're sending signals at frequencies that aren't commercially used yet, you have to be pretty clever," Rappaport said.

While thrilled with ham radio, Gross grew tired of the bulky electronics gear in his basement workshop. He wanted to talk to other ham radio users while on the go.

So he designed a portable, battery-operated two-way radio. He called it a walkie-talkie. Gross figured mobility would make ham radios more popular.

The military had other ideas. It was searching for wireless technologies to aid the war effort. The U.S. Office of Strategic Services recruited Gross to help on a project called Joan-Eleanor.

The OSS' goal: develop radio gear to help agents and troops working behind enemy lines communicate with bomber pilots.

By 1941, Gross developed a workable model that weighed four pounds with a compact antenna. The battery-operated unit worked at 260 MHz — less-vulnerable frequencies to enemy surveillance.

In 1944 and '45, intelligence teams in the Netherlands and Germany used the Joan-Eleanor system to direct British Mosquito planes flying six miles overhead. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said the Joan-Eleanor project ranked among the Allies' "most successful wireless intelligence-gathering operations" and helped shorten the war.

Building on his success, Gross set up Gross Electronics to make communications products, some under government contracts.

Unlike some inventors, Gross figured the more heads, the better. To improve his walkie-talkie design, Gross reached out to other inventors and scientists.

He wrote to the inventor of FM, Edwin Armstrong, asking advice. And Gross met up with Jack Kilby, one of the early inventors of integrated circuits. Kilby helped Gross pick materials to improve the performance of oscillators at higher frequencies.

More Bandwidth

While improving the design of his walkie-talkies, Gross focused on another issue — the availability of radio spectrum. In 1946, Gross lobbied the government to convert some radio spectrum used by ham radio operators for two-way mobile public communications.

It made him "the father of CB radio," said Maia.

The FCC granted Gross the first CB license, and he began using Phineas Thaddeus Veeblefetzer as his handle.

Gross launched Citizens Radio Corp. to build two-way, walkie-talkie radios. His customers included farmers and the U.S. Coast Guard. CB radios caught on with some small businesses as well.

CB radios didn't become a big hit with the public until the mid-1970s — a decade after Gross' patents ran out.

Nor did Gross hit pay dirt with early versions of pagers. In 1949, Gross adapted two-way radios by developing circuitry that responded to specific signals. During a stay in a hospital, he became tired of hearing doctors summoned via the public address system.

At a medical convention soon after, Gross demonstrated a beeper system that could alert doctors wirelessly. The audience, however, wasn't interested.

Gross excelled as an inventor. But he knew his shortcomings — one of which was his lack of salesmanship. In the early 1950s, he hung up his business-owning hat and took a job as a top engineer at Sperry. He later also worked at Westinghouse Electric and AG Communications.

In 1990, he joined Orbital Sciences to develop aerospace and satellite systems.

His fascination for communication thrilled Gross to the very end. He was still on Orbital Sciences' payroll when he died at 82.