Retro Gadgets: The CB Cell Phone

There was a time when one of the perks of having a ham radio in your car (or on your belt) was you could make phone calls using a “phone patch.” In the 1970s, calling someone from inside your parked car turned heads. Now, of course,  it is an everyday occurrence thanks to cell phones. But in 1977, cell phones were nowhere to be found. Joseph Sugarman, the well-known founder of JS&A, saw a need and wanted to fill it. So he offered the “PocketCom CB” which was billed as the “world’s smallest citizens band transceiver.” You can see the full-page ad from 1977 below.

Remember that this is from an era when ICs that could operate at 30 MHz were not the norm, so you have to temper your expectations. The little unit was 5.5 in by 1.5 in and less than an inch thick. That’s actually not bad, but you had — optimistically — 100 mW of output power. They claimed the N cell batteries would last two weeks with average use, but we imagine a lot less as soon as you start transmitting. The weight was 5 oz, but we suspect that is without the batteries.

The device had a crystal for channel 14, and you could buy another crystal to get a second channel. Given that the unit was selling for about $40 to $20, it was telling that the extra crystal cost $8. We heard that over 250,000 of these were sold. The ad copy mentions they were used on the TV show Charlie’s Angels, but we can’t picture how that happened. It also mentioned it can be used as a pager, an intercom, a telephone, or a security device.

In operation, the devices were pretty simple. The 40″ antenna, when pulled out, would make the unit a bit more cumbersome. We found a relatively recent review on the CB Gazette from someone who picked up two of these on the used market. Seemed like they did work, although they were probably no better than a kid’s walkie-talkie.

Many hams convert CBs to the 10-meter band or even the 6-meter band, and we wonder if a crystal would pull these to 10 meters. Before cell phones, people thought we needed bigger towers, more power, and more channels. Turns out, it is just the opposite.

45 thoughts on “Retro Gadgets: The CB Cell Phone

  1. Back in the day, Radio Shack sold CB & scanner crystals for $5 IIRC, so $8 from JS&A was probably reasonable.

    There were also “credit card” Ham handhelds that were a little wider/thinner around the same time.

    1. Not in 1977. The handie talkies were big. To some extent it wasn’t obvious from the ads, but I remember seeing a Standard close up, and it was big. I have an Icom, those originally came out in 1977 or 78. A big deal with a synthesizer. But originally no display, and a tiny switch to select frequency. Mine is a later variant, but it’s big and hefty.

      The one exception was a Motorola that put out about 100mW in the early seventies. Palmsize, but not so practical.

      1. He/she is probably thinking of Alinco model. DJ-C5 or similar.

        My father built a 2m handy for repeater operation in the 70s/80s that was 1,5 cm thick, 7 to 10cm long and a bit wider than a 9v battery..
        Not credit-card sized, but quite, err, handy.
        It was made of PCB material and operated from a single 9v battery and used the speaker as a microphone, too.
        The frequency was created by two ~72 MHz XTALs (relay station input, output), using a frequency doubler. Antenna port was BNC, using a telescope antenna.

        1. But if you’re dredging the past for anecdotes, dates are vital. He said there was a small ham unit around the same time. The Alinco dates from about 1999, twenty years later. A big difference. At least I mentioned the Motorola unit, Ihavejo idea how common they were. I remember an article in 1973 or 74 where someone modified one for 1W power, but you lost battery time.

  2. I keep reading as I wanted to know more about the phone patch, though there was a schematic or something to how they did it. but nope, bait and switch, is it me or is hack a day still getting worse since the take over?

    1. Wasn’t “Phone Patch” being forbidden in certain places/countries? Europe? Germany?
      Or was it the other way round, it was merely allowed in the states?

      The landlines used to be properties of the national telephone companies or postal agencies/postal authorities.
      Establishing an amateurish connection by private persons wasn’t allowed.

      “Phone Patch” for maritime radio was another story. It was commercial, legit.

    2. Are you saying you need explanations in the article for everything? Or lots of links to all of the things you might not know about? A simple Google search for “ham radio phone patch” would have given you the answer quicker than it took you to write your complaint.

        1. Well, the title was accurate and the words “phone patch” were used exactly once. The words “cell phones”, on the other hand, were used three times. Where is the “bait and switch” you complained about?

          1. The bait and switch is actually in using “cell phone” to describe these things. CB isn’t cellular. It’s just mobile. Cellular refers to a specific type pf system, where calls are relayed between cells using data communications.

    3. The phone “patch” was a service. You used a car/truck radio to contact the service, told them mthe phone number you wanted to call, they’d make the call and “patch” the call through by

      1. That was an American CB radio thing, right? Those radio clubs or radio teams that offered certain services to CBers, I mean.
        Their primary duty was to listening to the emergency channels 9/19, right?
        I read about this online (in the memoirs of ex-CBers who looked back on their life) not sure if I fully understand, though. They’d even go so far to irresponsiblly ask for credit card numbers over radio or so I read. Jesus.
        Anyway, I’m speaking under correction. I’m from Europe, also. CB wasn’t so commercialized here.

  3. I see nothing in that device that suggests phone patch functionality i.e. DTMF. This is click bait, Al. If you had briefly reviewed some novel circuit feature or even given us an internal photo, fine. But…nothing.

    1. I’ve been critical myself about some of the articles here that pass for “hacks”, but nothing about this article was click bait. The article was about the mini-CB transceiver, and the comment about phone patches was just incidental information. Read it again.

    2. That’s not how phone patch worked… at all. DTMF had nothing to do with it.
      It was handled by an operator and you requested the patch verbally over the air and they dialed the call and made the relay for you.
      The point being that there was no special equipment required and so technically any radio had this “feature” because it wasn’t a feature at all but rather a service. Advertising the capability was certainly fair, especially if the hardware was being marketed with that use case in mind as a primary use case.

    1. Marketing has changed. Nowadays, definitely if you buy two the price per unit goes down, though shipping per unit may not. They were still working out marketing strategy back then.

      1. No, they werent… marketing isnt new, only the advertising methods have really changed… sure, they didnt use terms like BOGO and so on, but even then we wouldve squawked about the screwy math in that pricing, lol

  4. Ham radio phone patches were originally strictly manual and strictly analog. They were just audio connection boxes with some impedance matching and manual switches to flip the telephone audio between send and receive on the ham radio gear. Both sides had to say “over” to let the ham operator know to flip the switch. Ham radio operators did a lot of phone patches especially for U.S. soldiers in Viet Nam and their families back home … Barry Goldwater’s station in Phoenix being a notable one that was run virtually around the clock by volunteers.

  5. I have a set of these, I found them at a garage sale.
    Powered them up on 2 different power supply and they work.

    Or kinda work, probably work as good as they did in the 1970s.

    Not much of a radio, the lowest quality FRS radios are better by a big margin.

    But it’s interesting to have them and I put them with all the other old radio things I have.

  6. I had a pair of those back in the day, and they were terrible. To get an idea of the range I started a cassette recorder recording with the mike sitting in front of one and started walking up the block, giving a short transmission every fifty feet or so. I walked about a mile. When I got back and played the tape the tests faded out after the fourth or fifth one so my range, optimistically, was about 300 feet. I returned them.

    1. For my fellow international readers, 300 fet – that’s roughly 90m. 🙂

      It’s unclear if it was a line of sight, also.
      I wouldn’t be surprised if there were buildings made of concrete in between, reducing the range.

  7. I really wanted a pair back in the day, but I remember thinking that even though the battery would last, you couln’t find one where you’d normally find batteries and if you did, they were expensive. I think kid’s walkie-talkies probably had a better range and, if I recall were also on CH14.

    1. I purchased a pair of these when I was a young teenager. I still have them! They worked ok but for their size they were quite modern. Batteries were difficult to get and not entirely inexpensive. Still, lots of fun was had and I am sure if I put some batteries in they would work today. Might fire them up on the weekend, just for fun! Definitely a blast from the past 🙂.

  8. IIRC, telephone interconnect was verboten for CB, and that was written into the rules. Hams had a special exemption to the general ban on phone patches. Gotta protect the Bell System’s monopoly, you know.

    Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but technically illegal.

    1. Electronics Illustrated ran projects for building phone patches, aimed at CBers. Unless their rules disallowed it, it was as legal as for ham radio.

      The real issue was the phone company. Phone patching until about 1968 was grey area. It happened but technically was illegal. But it wasn’t mundane stuff. As someone mentioned, a lot was personal calls to servicemen overseas. So that offset the issues of connecting to the phone.

      There were projects that coupled acoustically, which sidestepped the issue. And places like Heathkit sold phonepatches.

      Hams did not get the “exemptions” that some people imagine.

      1. That reminds me of an old story (set in Germany), not sure if it’s true, also. It was before my time.

        Long story short, a few hams had a chat over radio (morse) with each others and one of them, a mobile station (yes, I know – morse in a car is weird nowadays; the OP had the morse key mounted on the knee), was asked to bring with him a pizza.

        After a few days, the ham who asked for the pizza was charged for telegram fees. By the postal agency, they were listening..

        This was in the days before the founding of the Bandwacht (Intruder Watch) in 1972..

        And now, let’s imagine what would have had happened if they had done phone patch instead. Prison? Jail? Community work? Not all countries were as lax as the states back then.

        In Germany, there was an ancient law that granted the postal agency/authority the power to perform physical punishment against citizens (from late 19th or early 20th century). Of course, it was nolonger being applied for ages. But it’s existence was forgotten up until 1990 or so, when a staff person of the agency/authority treated an owner of an illegal, imported telephone (in the 80s and 90s many citizens were sick of boring phones and installed their own phones). After this accident, it was quickly withdrawn.

  9. I remember seeing that add at the time, thinking it was about the coolest thing ever, and then not seeing it again until now. If I hadn’t been a comparatively poor kid, buying a set wasn’t in the cards.
    Thanks for posting this, it’s a fun trip down memory lane.

  10. This was a well garbled post.

    I remember the ads, and a kid at school had one or two. He had money, and little sense.

    But JS&A wanted to cash in on the CB craze. These were license free walkie talkies. 100mW maximum input. You couldn’t talk to CBers, these weren’t type approved. And if they had been, you’d need a license.

    Unless they needed a crystal for receive, these are primitive. A single transistor superregen receiver and a single transistor transmitter. A lot of walkie talkies used the same transistor for both, and a big switch. It started in the thirties, 5 metre transceivers using one tube. The only place tor ICs would have been the audio, switched between receive and transmit.

    It’s all hype. The only thing was their tiny size.

    And in 1977, ICs were quite good. They were in IF amplifiers for tv sets, 41MHz. But you didn’t need much higher

    1. One of the suggested uses in the ad is to uses them to talk with a CB base station. I believe a license back then was only needed over a certain level of transmit power.
      My brother and I had pair of CB band walkie talkies, also with the channel 14 crystals. Used them all the time to talk with the CB base station in our house and the CB’s in our family’s cars.
      (Yes, western Iowa in the late 70’s bought in heavily with the CB craze…the school buses all had them so anyone could communicate with the drivers, very convenient…..”Johnny will not ride the bus today, so you don’t need to stop here today”)

    2. Your kidding right? It was 1977; people were not too concerned about being “legal” and everyone I knew had one in their cars. I don’t know anybody that bothered getting the license back then except for a few people I knew running base stations.

      I bought one of these mostly to listen in on my friends and figured I could use it in an emergency if my car broke down somewhere. Sadly the range seemed to be limited both ways; I don’t think I ever heard anyone talk in this thing. The only place to get batteries was Radio Shack 25 miles away and they did eat batteries fairly fast.

      Two or three sets of batteries later and mine ended up in a drawer where it still lives today. They were a cool size and fit easily into an inner sports jacket vest pocket.

      Still waiting for a modern day hack for one of these.

  11. “They claimed the N cell batteries would last two weeks with average use, but we imagine a lot less as soon as you start transmitting.”

    Nah. I bet they lasted for years.
    You buy it. You use some of the battery calling out.
    No one replies because range was best measured in inches.
    You get frustrated, stick it somewhere to collect dust and it never gets turned on again.
    Remaining battery is subject only to the battery’s own shelf life.

  12. When my father ans me disassembled a cheap, tiny children’s walkie talkie (27 MHz), we discovered that the circuit used a superregenerative receiver (German: Pendel-Empfänger, Pendel-Audion; meaning pendulum receiver).. Maybe something is happening here, too? The Audion family of receivers used to be very simple, yet capable. The back-feed type could even be used to send morse telegraphy in an emergency.

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