I wrote this feature article on Heathkit for Monitoring Times of Brasstown, North Carolina.
I've decided that more folks might want to read the article as published in in the July 2013 issue. I have added some additional supporting images on this website which could not be included in the article due to space limitations. Please note that the article is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission of Monitoring Times or the author.
The Heathkit Legacyby Rich Post KB8TAD
The on-line auction of bank-seized assets of the Heathkit Educational Services Company brought a note of sadness to me in August 2012. With waning sales of its educational materials, Heathkit had tried to restart just a bit of the kit business that the company was known for but failed when funds ran out.
My first Heathkit
Like so many experimenters and builders of Heathkits over the years, I fondly remember my first Heathkit. For me, it was an AR-3 Communications Receiver. It was 1959. I was in eighth grade. I was saving my hard-earned paper-route money to buy an electric train but after seeing an AR-3 in a Heathkit ad in Popular Electronics, I changed my mind. I wanted to build a shortwave radio. I looked at the offerings of Allied Radio with their somewhat cheaper regenerative kits but that AR-3 was a superhet that covered broadcast and three shortwave bands. It sported bandspread and a real BFO (beat frequency oscillator).
My first Heathkit
With a money order for $29.95, I ordered the kit. I already had most of the needed tools, a wire stripper, screwdrivers, a 75 watt Lenk soldering iron and a roll of rosin-core solder. The package from Heath arrived about 10 days later. I carefully sorted all screws, resistors and capacitors, and an assortment of small parts in several egg cartons and the side of a corrugated box, checking the parts list carefully to make sure I had everything.
My parents who knew very little about radios or electronics saw the myriad of parts and told themselves that their kid would never be able to complete the radio. As wise parents, they did not tell me that until much later.
I posted the large Heathkit chassis diagrams on the wall of my room and started the assembly process. Heath's manual was a marvel of simplicity. I dutifully checked off each step as it was completed. Gradually the set began to take shape. I took my time with the kit spending over two weeks of evenings on the construction. At last the chassis was complete. With a combination of excitement and apprehension, I plugged the set into the power outlet and waited for the tubes to warm up. The two pilot lights lit up nicely and the tubes glowed but no sound came from the speaker. What I had not realized when ordering the set was that a superhet needed alignment. The manual made that very clear. I assumed that the lack of alignment was the reason it did not work right away.
I had my parents drive me to a nearby town to the hams at Wilson's Electric Service. I asked if one of the hams could align the set for me. I would be happy to pay them. Several weeks went by, but finally they called and said to pick up the set. Not only had the hams aligned the set but found the location near the volume control where I had squeezed the spiral shield a bit too much, shorting out the audio signal. They refused my offer of payment. I learned that such willingness to help a budding radio enthusiast was typical for hams. They were also very familiar with Heathkits.
For Christmas that year, my parents gave me the $4.95 for the matching cabinet. They were not only suprised that their kid was able to complete the set but were amazed that the radio could pick up the BBC, Radio Netherlands, France and other overseas stations. I overheard them brag to their friends about what their kid had built.
Learning from the kits
I became a shortwave listener with that radio. I also read and re-read Heathkit's excellent explanation of how the radio worked. Reading that manual was almost like taking a course in radio. It helped me to understand the workings of a superheterodyne circuit. I learned to read schematics, to trace signals, and to do voltage measurements to the point where, with the help of an RCA tube manual, I was soon able to recognize which tube was associated with what function and could repair radios. That first Heathkit quickly led to building the matching QF-1 Q-multiplier followed by an SG-8 signal generator both of which worked perfectly when completed. Each kit added to my radio knowledge.
Learning from the kits
Heathkit's manuals were second to none in kit building. The thoroughness of the instructions and detail of the illustrations and explanations were part of Heath's uniqueness that underscored their motto "We will not let you fail".
Howard Anthony and the Heath Company
Wartime contracts - surplus
Heath starts in the kit business
The scope proved to be successful well beyond Anthony's expectations, launching Heathkit in the electronic kit business. Other test equipment kits quickly followed. A vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM) was introduced in the December ad at $24.50, the G-1 RF signal generator in the January 1948 ad at $19.50, and in the March ad, the C-1 resistor/ capacitor tester and T-1 signal tracer, also at $19.50.
In each case, Anthony found ways to make equipment cheaper and with instructions allowing the builder to easily calibrate the devices without specialized equipment. As an example, all of my Heathkit VTVMs have a small red dot to the right of the 1.5 volt base scale. That dot is the calibration mark for voltage when measuring a new carbon-zinc "C" cell used for the VTVM ohms function. The voltage was normally expected to be 1.55 volts. Using such a simple calibration scheme, the VTVM would be close enough to its typical 3% precision. Builders with access to meters of greater precision could recalibrate as needed. Even for the last series of Heathkit's resistor/ capacitor tester kits, the IT-11 and the IT-28, calibration was simplified by using a couple of extra resistors supplied with the kit. Instructions were also provided for those with access to more elaborate equipment and standards.
Customer support builds loyalty
Bjorn Heyning,(4) whose career covered much of the heyday of Heath as an electronics kit manufacturer provided a set of first-hand stories that encompassed a great deal of the early history. He notes that "any inquiry or letter got a prompt reply". He quoted one early letter from a physician who had purchased the scope kit, "Saw your Scope ad, sent the order and in 3 days I got the kit. Fine! Checked the parts against the parts list and they were all there! Mounted the parts and they all fit! Wired it up and tried it out. It does all you said it should! Marvelous! What do I do with it now? ... Please send me your next kit". It was the start of Heathkit developing a loyal, almost evangelistic following of kit builders. Heathkit offered an audio amplifier, a radio kit, and a ham transmitter in 1948 but the test equipment line proved the most successful in the early years.
Growth of the company
The 1954 Heathkit catalog lists 48 kits. A two-chassis Williamson hi-fi amp kit was offered with either an Altec-Lansing or Acrosound output transformer, both still prized today. Heathkit was developing the O-10 oscilloscope that could be used with the color burst frequency of 3.58 MHz. A less capable oscilloscope, the OM-1, was still priced at $39.50. Nearly 100,000 oscilloscope kits had been sold.
Growth of the company
Heath was so successful that Anthony was in the market for a new twin-engine pressurized company airplane, a DeHavilland Dove. On July 23, 1954, on a demonstration flight to Florida with a professional pilot and Anthony and four others as passengers, they encountered severe weather over Tennessee. The plane crashed with no survivors. Speculation for the cause of the crash was possible severe air turbulence.
Corporate ownership begins
On February 1, 1955, ironically the 24th anniversary of the day that took the life of Edward Heath, Helen Anthony and Thomas Roy Jones, the President of Daystrom each wrote letters to Heathkit customers announcing that Heathkit was now a subsidiary of Daystrom. Jones writes, "Yesterday was indeed an important day for Daystrom as well as Heath. Since I have been using Heathkits in my own basement workshop at home for years, you can well imagine how enthusiastic I am about this acquisition. You have, I am sure, appreciated the high standards set by Howard Anthony, not only for the products which he distributed but for the service and personalized attention which every order and letter received.... We shall join our material and engineering resources with those of Heath to develop still finer kits, and thus still better instruments for universities, engineering schools, industrial laboratories, radio and TV service men and hobbyists. The amateur radio kits which will make their appearance soon should rate cheers from you Hams. Along with you hi-fi fans, I am looking forward to even better amplifiers, tuners, and other phonographic gear."
Daystrom reportedly recovered their investment in just a matter of months. In 1958, a larger plant was built in nearby St. Joseph. Daystrom was in turn acquired by Schlumberger Limited, an oil field services company in 1961. Schlumberger had pioneered oil field quality measurements using electrical resistive techniques. The kit business thrived under both parent corporations. The years from 1955 to 1979 were some of the most successful for Heathkit with millions of kits produced.
Heathkit Amateur Radios
Low cost radio receiver kits were also sold. The AR-1, Heath's first shortwave superhet had three bands but no BFO or bandspread. Heath then developed the four-band AR-2 with BFO and bandspread. It appealed to shortwave listeners and novice amateurs. This was followed by the AR-3, GR-91, GR-64, and finally the SW-717 for five successive generations of Heathkit four band receivers (see cover picture, above).
For a complete compendium of Heath's ham radio kits, see Chuck Penson's "Heathkit, A Guide to Amateur Radio Products".(5)
"Heathkit Firsts" and more kits
The 1967 catalog back page lists 43 "Famous Heathkit Firsts" such as "First electronic guitar kits" ,"First electronic kit manufacturer to own patents on new circuits, (e.g. scope sweep circuit)",and "First and only impedance bridge and Q-meter test instrument kits".
"Heathkit Firsts" and more kits
During the corporate ownership years, Heath continued to introduce diverse kits for the consumer market, from direction finders to depth finders to fish finders, an analog computer, color TV sets including "The World's First (and only) Programmable Color TV", the Hero robots, a small off-road motorcycle called the "booney bike", Heathkit/Thomas electronic organs, metal locators, the "most accurate clock", radio control (R/C) model planes and systems, engine timing lights, auto ignition analyzers, garage door openers, programmable thermostats, audio components such as the "Pro-Series" audio system, 4-channel audio scopes, synthesized hi-fi receivers, an electronic air cleaner, the "SmartHome" computer-based X-10 controller, several weather stations, and a projection TV "home theater".
Heathkits were popular as a low-cost equipment option for schools and colleges. Heath introduced several series of purpose-built education kits. Malmstadt and Enke's book Electronics for Scientists (6) details a number of the EUW series which are also shown in the 1967 catalog. Heath also supplied its color TV and other kits under the name of correspondence schools. Heath also published an electronics reference library and began offering direct self-instructional courses in electronics, computers and related areas for continuing education credits (CEUs).
The 1955 catalog lists 53 kits. The 1967 catalog has 181 and the Summer 1977 has 288. Heath also opened Heathkit Electronic Centers. The Summer 1977 catalog lists 47 stores coast to coast noting they are "units of Schlumberger Products Corporation". The Winter 1979 catalog lists 54 stores. The stores allowed customers to see the Heathkit products directly although the prices were slightly higher than mail-order. The Christmas 1977 catalog opens with "Presenting Heathkit Personal Computers; the new value standard in personal computing systems featuring two powerful computers with exclusive Heath-designed software plus full documentation and service support." Those two computers were the H-8 and H-11. The pages also show the H-9, a video terminal and the H-10, a paper tape reader/ punch.
Zenith takes over
Apparently Zenith's television and computer sales declined as well. Because of major reverses in its finances and changes in the personal computer business, Zenith sold Heath, Zenith Data Systems and Veritechnology with its 56 Heath/Zenith Business Centers, to Groupe Bull, a French state-owned computer maker in 1989.(7)
The 1990 Holiday catalog lists 79 kits including instructional trainers. Some of the newer kits were small low-cost units such as a piezo-electric Magical Film Speaker, "Amaze your family and friends with a Mylar balloon, a mirror or a picture on the wall that talks and plays music." A pull-out section for assembled home automation devices was included in the catalog. The two oscilloscopes in the catalog were not kits. The end of kits was clearly in sight.
The end of Heath company kits So what ended the kit market for Heath?
The end of Heath in the kit business came in 1992.(8) The company continued in business as Heathkit Educational Systems (HES) selling its excellent self-instructional courses to schools and corporations. Some educational trainer kits were included as part of the course offerings. Eventually even the educational market dried up. In 2011, HES introduced a couple of new kits to capitalize on the growing nostalgia interest in Heathkits, the GPA-100 Garage parking Assistant and a Wireless Swimming Pool Monitor. Unfortunately the offerings were too little and too late with HES closing its doors to bankruptcy in August 2012.
Despite the timing which coincides with the ownership of Heathkit by Zenith, the trend was already clear. Heathkit market studies indicated that its loyal following of kit builders was growing older and less interested in the kits of their youth. Interest was shifting to computers. The kits themselves became more expensive compared to similar finished products built with robotic manufacturing techniques. The advent of large-scale integrated circuits and miniaturation of components, surface-mount soldering, and the expense of increasingly complex manuals with fewer options for simple testing and calibration procedures added to kit-building difficulty and expense. Whole assemblies had to be factory built, aligned and tested as part of the kits.
The end of Heath company kits
So what ended the kit market for Heath?
Some of the last Heath color TV kits were variations of Zenith System 3 TV sets using pre-assembled standard plugin circuit modules. Only one circuit module needed to be built. The kit version included a built-in cross-hatch generator. In comparing a Heathkit version with a comparable Zenith, I noticed an added isolation transformer in the kit version for safety. However, the kit cost more than a comparable manufactured TV. There was no saving of money and some of the hands-on satisfaction of kit building was lost.
The continuing appeal
Very few ham radio operators have the skills or the tools to repair today's sophisticated transceivers. Even though excellent kits are still offered by smaller companies such as Elecraft, TenTec and Ramsey, Heathkits of the past remain popular because they can be readily repaired and the learning about electronics theory and circuitry that drew so many of us to those kits is still a major draw. Re-kitting by taking apart a poorly built Heathkit and/ or testing and replacing parts as needed is an increasingly popular option.
The continuing appeal
The last Heathkit I built was an IM-4100 frequency counter. I still use it as well as that unique Heathkit plastic nut starter that came with many of the kits. And I'm still proud of that little AR-3 receiver that began it all for me. Every time I see a piece of Heathkit gear, I want to study how it works, to restore it if needed and to use it. Building new Heathkits is no longer possible, but the satisfaction of repairing and knowing that the functions and circuits can be understood is the continuing appeal of Heathkits. The late Steve Jobs in an April 1995 interview with Computerworld magazine (9) related that as a child, a ham neighbor had introduced him to Heathkits. Jobs is quoted, "looking at a television set you would think that 'I haven't built one of those but I could. There's one of those in the Heathkit catalog and I've built two other Heathkits so I could build that.' ... It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one's environment."
And that's the Heathkit legacy. It gave those who built the kits the self-confidence that with small cumulative steps, they could build a plane, they could build an electronics product, they could learn a subject that had seemed impossible, they could succeed. Heathkit wouldn't let us fail.
Steve continued, "My childhood was very fortunate in that way." Mine too, Steve. Thank you, helpful hams and Heathkit. Long live the legacy.
------ Footnotes ----------
(1) Heath and his "Baby Bullet" racing plane (hyperlink)
(2) Edward Heath with pictures of the Parasol (hyperlink)
(3) Reported in "Mr. Heathkit", a two-page tribute to Anthony in the Heathkit 1955 catalog.
(4) Heyning's original stories as well as some he collected from colleagues and other sources are online at Bill Wilkinson's excellent Heath Company webpage at http://ww_heco.home.mindspring.com under the "History" tab
(5) "Heathkit: A Guide to the Amateur Radio Products", 2nd edition, by Chuck Penson WA7ZZE, CQ Publications
(6) "Electronics for Scientists: Principles and Experiments", H. V. Malmstadt and C. G. Enke, W. A. Benjamin, Inc., New York, 1962.
(7)(8) New York Times business section 1/16/1991 and 3/30/1992
(9)Steve Jobs interview (hyperlink)
Date 10-4-13 Here is an index to some of my Heathkit restoration projects.
A Homebrew HF Transmitter with parallel 6146 tubes was the previous item on the bench.