Whenever I mention to folks that I used to work at Heathkit, a few people actually ask, “What’s Heathkit?” Yes, I suppose that does date me a bit. Others will say, “Oh, yes, my dad used to build Heathkits.” Anyway, some of you do remember Heathkit, and fondly in most cases. If not, let me explain.
There once was a time in electronics when you could actually build circuits and equipment yourself. You needed a design that you could create yourself—or if not, get from one of many magazines, including Electronic Design. You could buy the resistors, capacitors, transistors, or tubes in the olden days, then put them all together on a metal chassis, a breadboard, or a finished printed-circuit board (PCB). It was quite a project but doable, and many hobbyists like hams built these designs on a regular basis.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, someone invented the kit business. Companies designed a product and sold it as a bundle of parts called a kit. You could buy the kit for a fraction of what a comparable wired unit would cost and then build it yourself. The outcome was quite favorable—a workable electronic product and a great sense of accomplishment you got from the construction.
Heath was one of those companies that help started the kit business. Ed Heath founded the company in 1926 with, of all things, an airplane kit. He died in a test flight in one in 1935, but Howard Anthony kept the company going. Right after World War II, he bought a batch of electronic surplus. Out of that came one of the first successful kits, a small oscilloscope for $50, which was a real achievement in its time. With that success came many new products.
Heathkit probably succeeded more on its ham radio products than anything else. Most of the early kits were shortwave radios, transmitters, accessories like antenna tuners, and the famous Cantenna, a 1-kW non-inductive power resistor in a paint can with mineral oil for the heatsink. Heathkit went on to create an extensive line of small and large transceivers and big power amps, many of which are still operational today.
The Successful Years
Later in the 1950s and 1960s, Heathkit expanded into audio equipment, TV sets, and lots of other consumer products. The company even had a low-cost line of test equipment with scopes, multimeters, generators, counters, and other items. While Heathkit had competitors like Allied Knight, Lafayette, Eico, and a few other smaller companies, it essentially beat the pants off everyone else because it had a better product.
But Heathkit’s good reputation really came from offering a better assembly manual than anyone else. A poorly executed step-by-step manual is a prescription for disaster for any kit company. If the customer can’t build the kit successfully without massive telephone and mail support, it would die a quick death, and many did. Heathkit figured this out early and spent as much development time in the manual as it did engineering the product. Its primary marketing message was “We won’t let you fail,” and the company lived up to it.
I went to Heathkit in the early 1970s to start its education and publishing product line. The idea was to extend the concept that building a kit was an educational endeavor and that we could expand on that idea with more formal learning materials to supplement the kits. We built a line of self-instructional courses on electronic fundamentals and a wide range of other topics. A line of kit trainers accompanied the instructional materials. The first products emerged in 1974 and were instantly successful. We followed up with microprocessor learning packages, which were hot for their time. And, we developed the Hero robot kit that came out in 1982.
I was also involved with the development of the Heathkit computers. We created the H8 and the H11, not to mention the H9 terminal, and of all things the H10, a paper tape reader/punch. (What was I thinking?) The H11 kit used Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) famous LSI-11 board. We packaged that into kit form with some 8-in. hard drives (remember those?) and the RT-11 operating system with Basic—not bad for $1200 at that time. The all-in-one H89 and others came later.
The Beginning of the End
The success of the computer line attracted the attention of Zenith Corp., which went on to buy Heathkit in 1979 from the owner Schlumberger, an oil field service company that also owned Fairchild Semiconductor at the time. Zenith carved out the computer product line and started Zenith Data Systems (ZDS), and that company went on to build a several billion dollar business making Zenith computers and PC compatibles. Groupe Bull of France eventually bought that business, and ultimately it succumbed to the market forces driving the PC-compatible business with all its shakeouts, ups, and downs during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In the meantime, the kit business suffered. Zenith didn’t really want that business, but it came with the deal. It was neglected as ZDS grew, and so began its slow decline into oblivion. But a great deal of that decline had little to do with Zenith. It was also the time of great progress in semiconductor manufacturing. More and more equipment was being made of more and smaller ICs and surface-mount components, both of which were always a challenge for kit builders. It became harder to make a kit people could build at home with basic hand tools.
At the same time, wired products became cheaper thanks to Asian engineering and manufacturing. You could buy a great stereo or color TV set for less than what a kit cost, and you didn’t have to spend three weekends building it. Everyone was into instant gratification in the 1980s, so nobody wanted to spend time building kits.
Heathkit discovered it could no longer compete in many markets like ham radio, audio, TV, and test equipment as it took as much time and money to create the manual as it did the product. With double the development costs and the technology making assembly more difficult, Heathkit eventually concluded it could not compete. This perfect storm of conditions led to the formal phasing out of the kit business in 1991 and 1992. There was lots of editorial coverage about that being the end of an era.
But Wait—Heathkit Really Didn’t Go Away
Everyone thought that Heathkit was no more. Wrong! The education and publishing business now called Heathkit Educational Systems (HES) was still doing well. While the courses, materials, and trainers were sold to individuals, HES also developed a huge college and university business. HES was soon sold to a private buyer and continued as a successful operation. It still is today.
While its primary customers are educational institutions, you can still buy individual learning programs and even the trainer kits. HES also retained the rights to all those amazing kit manuals. The company still has many in stock. If you’re looking for the documentation on an older Heathkit transceiver, scope, or whatever, you can get a copy of the manual. It’s a nice little side business.
And despite the surface-mount components, ever smaller ICs, and challenging construction, you can still buy a kit today. Most of these kits are smaller products, but a few larger ones require some skill to build. An example of some of the smaller kits can be found at Ramsey Electronics (www.ramseykits.com), which offers a wide range of kits like power supplies and amplifiers that hobbyists love. Ramsey also has many ham radio kits and some commercial radio kits.
Jameco (www.jameco.com), which you might recognize as a mail order parts house, also has a line of small kits for hobbyists and educational institutions. Some of the ham radio companies offer kits as well, like Elecraft (www.elecraft.com) and TenTec (www.tentec.com). Other sources include Elenco Electronics (www.elenco.com) and Kelvin Electronics (www.kelviin.com).
Most kits go light on the newer parts and stay with older but still good ICs with the larger through-hole packages. When newer ICs are used, they’re often pre-mounted on a PCB or the assembly using them will be pre-wired to prevent damage from poor construction.
It is still fun and satisfying to build a kit—at least to some people. And if you have the patience, you will actually experience that “Eureka” feeling one gets from building a particularly large and difficult kit. It works! It is a rare, satisfying experience that few enjoy any more. Next time you want to encourage one of your kids or relatives to enter the electronics field, give them a kit.
So despite the fact that almost everyone thought Heathkit died, it still exists and is still doing well. Check out its Web site at www.heathkit.com. The company’s new address is 2024 Hawthorne Avenue, St. Joseph, Mich. 49085. Call 269-925-6000 or 800-253-0570. Many of the original Heathkit employees are still with the company, and that “we won’t let you fail” attitude still prevails.
My special thanks to Chas Gilmore (W8IAI) of PPM Inc. as well as Doug Bonham and Randy Kaeding (K8TMK), both of Heathkit, for clarifying some of this information.