Passing of a wireless pioneer

Summary:Remembering a forgotten wireless pioneer.

"The man who brought the world such indispensable wireless communications concepts and devices as the walkie-talkie, pager, and cordless telephone has died." That's the lead sentence of an email I just received from a ham radio news service I subscribe to.

The story is so interesting and the accomplishment so great that I'd like to share it with you. 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. And now he's dead.

His name was Al Gross. His ham radio call sign was W8PAL, and he died four days before Christmas at his home in Sun City, Ariz.

Here's the rest of the email:

"Gross obtained his amateur radio license in 1934 at the age of 16. His early interest in amateur radio helped set his career choice while he was still a teenager.

"Gross pioneered the development of devices that operated in the relatively unexplored VHF and UHF spectrum above 100MHz. His first invention was a portable hand-held radio transmitter-receiver.

"Developed in 1938 while he was still in high school in Cleveland, he christened it the 'walkie-talkie.' The device caught the attention of the US Office of Strategic Services -- the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS recruited Gross, and this led to the invention of a two-way air-to-ground communications system used by the military behind enemy lines during the World War II. The system allowed OSS agents to communicate with high-flying aircraft.

"After World War II, Gross set up Gross Electronics Inc to design and build various communications products, some of them under government contracts. He also launched Citizens Radio Corporation to design, develop and manufacture personal wireless transceivers.

"Cartoonist Chester Gould asked if he could use Gross' concept of a miniaturized two-way radio in his Dick Tracy comic strip. The result was the Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio.

"During the 1950s and 1960s, Gross secured several patents for various portable and cordless telephone devices. In September 1958, Gross Electronics received FCC type approval for mobile and handheld transceivers for use on the new Class D 27-MHz Citizens Band.

"'If you have a cordless telephone or a cellular telephone or a walkie talkie or beeper, you've got one of my patents,'Gross once said. He added that if his patents on those technologies hadn't run out in 1971, he'd have been a millionaire several times over.

"Over the years, Gross worked as a communications specialist for several large companies. Since 1990, he had worked as a senior engineer for Orbital Sciences Corporation and was still on the payroll there when he died.

"Gross received numerous awards and honors during his distinguished career, including the 1992 Fred B. Link Award from the Radio Club of America, the 1997 Marconi Memorial Gold Medal of Achievement from the Veteran Wireless Operators Association, and the 1999 Edwin Howard Armstrong Achievement Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In 1998, he received Eta Kappa Nu's Vladimir Karapetoff Eminent Members' Award in recognition of his pioneering contributions to the engineering of personal wireless communications.

"Earlier this year, he won the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation and for playing a major role in the wireless personal communications field."

As his IEEE biography put it: "It is clear that Mr. Gross was a true pioneer and helped lead the way to today's wireless personal communications revolution."

Gross was, of course, only one of many communications pioneers. Yet his accomplishments are all around us. Someday our children will be startled to learn of the deaths of some Internet pioneer or maybe someone from Xerox PARC--an Al Gross of our age.

(Thanks to the ARRL, the W5YI Report and the IEEE, all of whom contributed to the email quoted in this column.)

ZDNet News commentator David Coursey is based in Silicon Valley and has covered personal computers, software, and the Internet for more than 20 years. He is an industry analyst and creator of several industry conference events. His Web site is www.coursey.com.

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