First-Hand:Hand-Held Radios and Electronic Beepers


Submitted by Al Gross

My parents encouraged my work, although they didn't understand it. We were poor, yet my parents found a way to get me parts to work with. The parts may have been from the junk yard, but they kept me busy. At one point, I had our whole house rigged up with radios, so we could communicate from the basement to the other parts of the house. My sister liked that.

At sixteen, I studied hard to earn my Amateur Radio Operator's License, and my parents encouraged me to master the intricacies of Morse code and the other strigent requirements. They weren't technically-minded at all, yet they encouraged me every step of the way.

I have the world's first hand-held radio. I built it in 1938 and it still works. The metal miniature tape recorder-sized box holds the circuitry built around vaccuum tubes. This little unit is the grand-daddy of microminiaturization- and I built it long before the word "electronics" was coined.

On the eve of World War II, my radio was reviewed in a technical magazine where it caught the eye of officials in Washington, DC. Subsequently, I was invited to Washington to demonstrate my design to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)-the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The people serving on the OSS panel must have liked what they saw. Soon I was given a commission and charged with assembling a group of people to secretly design and build handheld radios which would operate on high frequencies. I set up my operation in Youngstown, Ohio. There I designed a two-way system that allowed OSS agents working under the net of the Third Reich to communicate directly with Allied officers flying at thirty thousand feet in modified Mosquitoes.

Called the "Joan-Eleanor" system, the units beamed a vertical signal at a high frequency-a technique which made enemy detection of the signal highly unlikely, if not impossible. Two hundred agents carrying Joan-Eleanor units were dropped into Germany. Although thirty-six of them were reported killed or captured, the rest were successful in their missions, using Joan-Eleanor systems to help bring an end to the war.

July, 1945, in a memo from the OSS to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, my system received high marks for war service, "In actual operation, it (my system) proved a valuable new tool for penetration ... into enemy territory."

Federal Communications E.K. Jett gave the idea a boost in July, 1945, when he was interviewed for an article in the Saturday Evening Post, "The remarkable progress achieved during the war has opened the door to a large variety of new applications of radio. One of these is the Citizens' Radio Communications Service, recently created by the FCC, under which any American citizen, firm, group or community unit may privately transmit and receive short-range messages over certain radio wave lengths."

On Sept. 10, 1945, the FCC issued me an experimental Radio Station Construction Permit and assigned the call sign W8XAG. Under the terms of the permit, I was to build an experimental radio to operate on "frequencies ...assigned by the Commission's Chief Engineer."

Relying on my Joan-Eleanor system, I submitted a prototype of a CB radio to the FCC in May, 1946. Next, I organized the Citizens Radio Corporation to develop and build the transceivers. On March 22, 1948, the radio design received the blessing of the FCC.

Although setting up the Citizen's Radio Corporation involved considerable "professional and financial risk," I didn't spend much time out on the limb. I still keep copies of these two purchase orders. One from Montgomery Ward, dated 1949, ordering $1,800,000 worth of radios. The second is from the U.S. Coast Guard authorizing expenditure of $500,000 with my company.

Remember, these were 1949 dollars and I was a thirty year old engineer. I was thrilled. A 1948 back-cover ad on Radio News Magazine proudly announced that the "Citizens Radio Transceiver Uses Sylvania Sub-Miniature Tubes!" This thing never would have been possible without the support and help I received from Sylvania.

In 1949, I was approached by a hospital consultant to build a "silent radio paging system for use by doctors and nurses in hospitals." Six weeks later, we had built the world's first pocket pager, or "beeper." It weighed twelve ounces and was called "Royalcall." The Royalcall also contained Sylvania vacuum tubes.

I took the Royalcall to a hospital trade association meeting in 1951, and couldn't get anybody interested in it. I was told it was impractical, that it would inconvenience the doctor and the patient. We were just ahead of our time. That's all.

Lastly, because of all the publicity I had gotten, Chester Gould, Dick Tracy's creator, came to visit. On my kitchen table was this wristwatch radio. He looked it over, and the next thing I knew, it showed up in the comics on Dick Tracy's arm.