Friday, June 22, 2018
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Remembering the OSS
Walter Salm, Editor
Flashback to 1977: Citizens' Band Radio was sweeping the country. It seemed as though the whole world had gone Personal Communications crazy. There were new hit songs about it, and even some "B" movies, mostly bombs, and here I was sitting in a rental car in Las Vegas chatting with Al Gross, acknowledged to be the father of CB Radio. Al had built his first handheld transceiver, which he called a "Walkie Talkie", in 1938 and with some serious string pulling, got the FCC to license the needed frequencies. But it was all experimental and World War II got in the way.

Al went to war, designing new electronic marvels. He adapted the Walkie Talkie, making it into a ground-based short-range communicator for American and British agents (spies) to use to talk to a contact aircraft circling overhead. If you have ever seen a WW II spy movie, you probably saw an American OSS agent on the ground talking to a circling airplane and hoping the Germans didn't catch him in the middle of his mission. Being a spy behind enemy lines was definitely detrimental to one's health.

The tiny radio used a miniature, low-voltage vacuum tube as its RF power amplifier, and the whole thing was mounted on a new-fangled thing called a printed circuit. There was a separate, rather heavy battery pack residing in the agent?s trenchcoat pocket. To be sure, the PCB was crude; there were a few fat strips of tinned copper, precariously adhering to a ceramic substrate. And there were certainly no such things as multi-layer boards. But it worked, the radio's range was purposely kept short, to avoid being detected by German listening stations. Patrols were always on the prowl, with directional antennas atop a truck cab, seeking out illicit transmitters. These were people you definitely did not want to catch you if you were a spy.

After the war, CB radio got off to a slow, almost meandering start. Gross was right in the thick of it, setting up a manufacturing company that soon garnered government contracts for communications equipment. At the time, nobody in the general population seemed to be interested in mobile communications. In those days, long-wave mobile telephones were cumbersome and patience-trying, since there were only 16 channels allocated for each major metropolitan center. In September 1958, Gross Electronics received FCC type approval for mobile and handheld transceivers the new Class D (27MHz) Citizens Band. A Gross-manufactured unmanned weather station was parachuted by the U.S. Navy into Antarctica in 1959.

Gross was busily inventing circuits and concepts and acquiring patents, many of which made possible today's plethora of cell phones. Most of his key patents expired before the cell phone mania swept the world, so he never did become a millionaire. In the early 1970s, long-haul truck drivers discovered CB radio, adopting the technology wholeheartedly. By 1977, when I had my first face-to-face meetings with Al, the CB craze was sweeping the nation. He gave me lots of material for two different books that I wrote on CB radio. The market for this information was insatiable. At the time, there were more than 200 companies making CB radios, in the U.S. and Japan.

The last time I saw Al was in 1984, when he invited me to attend an IEEE presentation banquet in New York City where he was awarded the IEEE Centennial Medal for his work in VHF and UHF mobile radio. Today, truckers still use Channel 19 on their CB radios. Yes, it's old technology, but it still works and has its place. Just don't expect it to be like your cell phone.  

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