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Obituaries

Al Gross; Invented Pager, Walkie-Talkie and Cordless Phone

January 14, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Al Gross' ideas took decades to catch on. And by the time they gained widespread popularity, he had suffered the fate of a legion of inspired inventors: His patents had expired.

But what a difference Gross' gizmos made.

Gross, who died Dec. 21 in Sun City, Ariz., at the age of 82, invented the walkie-talkie, the wireless pager and the cordless telephone. He pioneered citizens band radio. His patents led to technological breakthroughs that became icons of the late 20th century, such as the cellular telephone.

He also inspired the wrist radio used by detective Dick Tracy in Chester Gould's famed cartoon strip.

Half a century ago, however, when Gross tried to market his pager at a medical convention, doctors smirked at the device: It would, they complained, ruin afternoons at the golf course. No one knew that by the end of the 20th century, about 300 million pocket pagers would be in use around the world.

"I was born 35 years too soon," he once told the Arizona Republic. "If I still had the patents on my inventions, Bill Gates would have to stand aside for me."

Gross was born in Toronto, but his story really begins on a steamboat trip with his parents across Lake Erie in 1928. The friendly operators in the ship's radio room invited the inquisitive 9-year-old in for a tour of their operations. He was so enchanted that he spent the entire trip watching them work.

Three years later, Gross had made his own ham radio, pieced together in his parents' basement from junkyard scraps. At 16, he had an amateur radio operator's license. But his radio was not portable, a frustrating limitation for a boy who yearned to walk around and talk to other hams at the same time. "I wanted to take it everywhere with me," he said.

So he tinkered with the idea of a hand-held radio. By 1938 he had built one that could transmit messages across town. He called it a "walkie-talkie."

Within a year, his novel toy caught the attention of military officials in Washington. The Cleveland high school student demonstrated his walkie-talkie for William J. Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Donovan had been searching for a secure yet portable means of air-to-ground communication. He was so impressed with Gross' invention that he made him a captain and set him to work on the project. It was code-named Joan-Eleanor.

Credited With Saving Lives in World War II

Supplied by the OSS with "all the money I wanted," Gross bought a house and machine shop in Youngstown, Ohio. By 1941, he had perfected a device that would become a critical tool for American spies in World War II. It allowed them to safely convey information to Allied reconnaissance pilots. His invention garnered high praise from the joint chiefs of staff, who said later that it was one of the Allies' "most successful wireless intelligence-gathering operations, saving millions of lives by shortening the war."

Just before the war ended, Gross presented the OSS walkie-talkie to the Federal Communications Commission, which urged its adaptation for civilian use. When Gross completed his service for the spy agency, he formed the Citizens Radio Corp. in Cleveland to produce two-way radios for the public. He was the first to obtain a citizens band license and adopted the handle of Phineas Thaddeus Veeblefetzer.

The successful business gave Gross the freedom and money to continue inventing.

In 1949 he devised the first wireless pager. That was followed in 1951 by his wireless telephone.

In 1958 he came up with the first battery-operated calculator, developed for the military.

In 1959 he began to work in the aerospace industry, contributing critical work for digital timing devices in Titan, Atlas and Minuteman missiles.

His contribution to pop culture came one day in the late 1940s, when cartoonist Gould arranged to visit Gross at his workshop. Gould saw two items that gave him a brainstorm: a watch with a built-in beeper and a wireless microphone.

"Can I use this?" he asked the inventor, who agreed. The result: In 1948, Dick Tracy made his debut as a crime fighter aided by a two-way wrist radio.

Not everyone was so impressed. "Wireless will never fly," Gross remembered a critic at the Wall Street Journal saying.

He held about a dozen patents, all of which had expired by about 1971. In the late 1970s, his OSS walkie-talkie was declassified, which paved the way for the cellular explosion that has transformed global communications.

Last year Gross was honored with a $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for Invention, a prize named for another prolific inventor--Jerome H. Lemelson, whose achievements led to the fax machine, the Sony Walkman and store checkout scanners.

Inventions' Popularity Was Payment Enough

In his last years Gross worked as a senior staff engineer for Orbital Sciences Corp. in Chandler, Ariz. Among his last projects was a device to detect the origin and location of thunder.

Along the way, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He also studied under Albert Einstein at Princeton.

Gross is survived by his wife, Ethel Stanka Gross, of Sun City.

Although he had plenty of cause, he seemed to harbor no resentment that he never profited from his revolutionary inventions.

They have "permeated our society," he said last year, "and I'm delighted."

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