Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

In the late 1930s, Al Gross, a teenage ham radio enthusiast in Cleveland, OH, built some handheld devices that allowed his friends and him to communicate on an unused portion of the radio frequency band; he named his creation the “walkie-talkie.” Although Gross’s innovation later played an important part in World War II, neither it nor his other major inventions became commercially successful until many years after his patents expired.

As an electrical engineering student at Cleveland’s Case School of Applied Sciences, Gross discovered a way to cause miniature vacuum tubes to operate at about 300 megahertz, a relatively unexplored high frequency. By 1938, he had built battery-operated models that allowed him to communicate with radio operators more than 45 kilometers away.

Early in World War II, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services learned about Gross’s walkie-talkies and called the young inventor to Washington, DC. The office asked him to develop a system that would allow Allied agents in Germany and occupied countries to communicate with pilots flying overhead. Because the system operated at a virtually unused high frequency, operators could transmit military intelligence without being detected by enemy shortwave-radio operators.

After the war ended, Gross founded Citizens Radio to commercialize the technology. The company’s customers included the U.S. Coast Guard and farmers, but the walkie-talkie wasn’t a commercial hit.

Meanwhile, Gross built other communications devices, including cordless telephones and personal paging systems. Gross had begun developing the pager during World War II, when he designed a device that could be attached to dynamite on the ground and signaled to ignite it from an airplane flying nearby. Gross thought that a modified version could be used to page doctors. He built a prototype device in 1949, but when he demonstrated it at a medical convention, his audience wasn’t interested. “They said it would interfere with the patients, and it would interrupt their leisure time, like golf games, I suppose,” Gross said during a 2000 interview on Canada’s CBC Radio One.

Although Gross’s key inventions didn’t become popular until after his patents expired in the early 1970s, he didn’t become frustrated. At the time of his death in 2000, at age 82, he was working as a senior principal electrical engineer at Orbital Sciences in Chandler, AZ, helping design electrical systems on rockets.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Communications

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me