By Suzy Kalter
May 01, 1978 12:00 PM

Five years ago Tom Cataldo’s mother, Teresa, then 74, was felled by a heart attack in the Boston apartment where she lives alone. She lay on the floor near death for hours before she was discovered. Mrs. Cataldo did survive, but her son, living 3,000 miles away, was determined to find a better way to cope with such situations in the future.

What Cataldo, 52, devised in his garage workshop in La Canada, Calif. was a one-ounce gadget called Microlert that dangles from his mother’s neck. Now, should assistance become necessary, she can press the pendant and a prerecorded telephone message will alert the local emergency number: “There is a medical emergency at the residence of Teresa Cataldo at 532 Metropolitan Avenue…” Similar directives are relayed to her doctor and her closest relative. Mrs. Cataldo is not the only beneficiary of Tom’s wizardry. The system is being used by 3,000 people, including the inventor, who last spring suffered a mild coronary.

Prodigy son of a Boston insurance man, Tom enrolled in MIT at 15 and while there worked on the development of radar and the long-range navigation system. On graduating he married his college sweetheart, Kay Corey. Eventually he became an executive of Electronic Specialty, Inc., suppliers of aerospace equipment, only to quit in 1973 as he became increasingly obsessed with his lifesaving project. For a prototype, he experimented with variations of a burglar alarm he once rigged up to safeguard his home. The electronics were a snap—when the battery-operated gadget is squeezed it sets off a radio frequency which, in turn, dials a series of preprogrammed phone numbers.

But the hang-up was Ma Bell. Microlert can plug into any telephone jack, but its use on unleased lines was illegal. So Cataldo gambled his career savings and approached bankruptcy to fight the nation’s 1,600 telephone companies for access to their lines. “My life-style went from up to down to very down,” he notes, “and it damn near cost me a wonderful marriage.” But after an 18-month battle the FCC ruled in his favor, and he is now working on profitable adaptations for fire or crime-alarm systems.

Microlerts are already being rented (for up to $20 a month) or sold (up to $995). “Just think,” Cataldo muses, “if Elvis had had a Microlert system, he’d be alive today.”