Backscatter: Remember Heathkits?

BY Donald Christiansen Posted: 1 Feb 2014

When I recently learned that Heathkit was hoping to stage a comeback as a purveyor of do-it-yourself electronic kits, I was transported to the 1950s and my own experience in building early Heathkits. I rummaged through the basement and retrieved the audio amplifier pictured below. I had forgotten how heavy it was and so was careful not to drop it on my foot. (It weighed over 12 pounds, due mostly to the beefy power and output transformers.)

This Heathkit A-5 audio amplifier, circa 1950, featured a 6J5, a 6SJ7, and a pair of 6L6s, plus volume, bass, and treble controls. Photo: Don Christiansen

I also retrieved, from my extensive file of items too interesting to discard, a clipping from The New York Times from 30 March 1992. The front-page headline read "Plug Is Pulled on Heathkits, Ending a Do-It-Yourself Era." In the article, William Johnson, Heathkit's president, said society's concern for instant gratification meant that young people no longer had the interest in electronics as a hobby as had their parents. Plus, he noted, the arrival of the integrated circuit and its use in do-it-yourself kits left the builder with little comprehension of what might be happening in the assembled product. Furthermore, Heathkits that once cost perhaps 75 percent of comparable assembled products had lost that cost advantage. The writer of the Times article reported that Senator Barry Goldwater, 83 years old at the time, grieved for the end of Heathkits. He had built more than 100 of them and said their demise "leaves the amateur, like me, no place to turn."

The Origin of Heathkit

The company had been founded in 1926 by Ed Heath, a barnstorming pilot, to sell light airplane kits. But it was not until the end of World War II, following the earlier death of Heath on a test flight and the reorganization and relocation of the company to Benton Harbor, Michigan, that the first electronic Heathkit was introduced. The company was then buying and selling war surplus aircraft and electronics equipment. One lot included hundreds of 5BP1 cathode ray tubes, and inspired the company to offer its first Heathkit, an oscilloscope kit for $39.95. Advertised in Radio News magazine in 1949, it became a best seller, and was followed by kits for a VTVM and an RF signal generator.

In the process of following the well-defined step-by-step instructions, the Heathkit builder without any formal knowledge of electronics would nevertheless become familiar with the individual components and had the option of learning more in a "theory of operation" chapter in each instruction manual.  The post-war interest in high-fidelity audio equipment was a boon to Heath. That was followed by a line of kits for radio amateurs. By the mid-1970s some 400 kits were available, including mono and stereo amplifiers, tuners, tape recorders, speaker systems, and radio and television sets. For the ham radio crowd, there were d-i-y kits for receivers, transmitters, and transceivers. A line of test equipment kits ranged from VTVMs and oscilloscopes to tube testers and Q-meters.

The AT-1, a three-tube crystal-controlled transmitter kit, was introduced in 1954, and by the late 1960s, it was believed that Heathkit had as large a selection of amateur radio equipment as any company then in the field.

Enter Computers

In 1960 Heathkit introduced an analog computer, EC-1, making it available in both kit and pre-assembled formats. Then in 1978 it launched its first digital personal computer, the H8. It was followed by the H89, featuring a pair of Zilog Z80 processors. A year later, when Zenith Radio acquired Heath, the H89 in assembled form was combined with a monitor and floppy disk drive for sale to small businesses. A later design used a dual Intel 8085/8088 and was available in either kit or assembled form.

By 1989, Heathkit had been purchased by Groupe Bull, and a few years later it ceased producing kits. According to Johnson, the PC revolution siphoned off the most enthusiastic kit builders. "Once they found computers, it became all consuming," he told the Times. The kinds of fans who once built stereo amplifiers, he said, now spent their leisure time writing software code. Assembling IC-based PCs was but a minor task.

The Heathkit Legacy

Many veteran Heathkit fans still swap memories of building, operating, and upgrading Heath products. A selection of vintage Heathkits can be found online, including some pristine, unbuilt kits carefully hoarded by their owners. Because the instruction manuals and circuit diagrams of the surviving Heathkits are often lost or misplaced, vintage manuals are in demand, and many are offered online.

Fans also describe how they restore aging Heathkits. Rule number one is to swap out all electrolyitic capacitors, and plug and re-plug everything that isn't permanently connected, including vacuum tubes, to restore good contact. And re-soldering of some connections may be needed.

No doubt the celebrated success of Heathkit has inspired newcomers to enter the electronic kit business. Analog Metric of Hong Kong offers a line of tube-based kits for the audiophile. A typical PCB-based stereo preamplifier uses a pair of 12AX7s and a pair of 12AT7s and dedicated ground and power rails. Based on photos of the neat and colorful assembled kits, I am guessing that their owners would not want to hide them in any enclosure.

For audiophiles who have abandoned their loyalties to tube amplifiers when seduced by the advantages of reduced size, weight, and power consumption of class D amplifiers, kits are available from Parts Express and classDaudio, as well as from sure-hifi and Weiliang Audio, the latter two based in China. Class D amplifiers use MOSFETs operating as binary switches and exploit pulse-width modulation or pulse-frequency modulation to reduce power requirements.

Hope for the Future?

A series of sales and resales of the company ended in Heathkit filing for bankruptcy in 2012, and its promise of restructuring in 2013. By 2011 the company, whose workforce once exceeded 1800, had but 15 to 20 employees.

In 2013 a group of investors announced its interest in resuming the production of Heathkits. It posted an online survey (Heathkit Customer Survey--Spring 2013). The introduction to the survey read in part ". . . we'd really like to know more about you, and what's important to you--your kit-building interests, your thoughts about old vintage Heathkits, your interest . . . in amateur radio, and your thoughts and ideas about Heathkit."

Will Heathkit return to recapture its importance in the electronic kit marketplace? If so, some Heathkit watchers suggest it concentrate on audiophile kits, as well as the ham market, and forego an attempt to re-enter the volatile computer field. (Arduino and Raspberry Pi seem to have a commendable head start here.)

Upgraded kits perhaps should slip in a few vintage resistors and capacitors along with the inevitable ICs, via through-hole and surface mounting on PC boards. The required soldering will present an interesting challenge to first-timers in avoiding cold-solder and dry-solder joints, a test of craftsmanship that plug-in and snap-together components and prototyping breadboards cannot provide! But handling the minuscule components of contemporary kits requires a vise to clamp the PC board, excellent eyesight and possibly a magnifier, and a steady hand to coax the tiny components into position for soldering.

While updating both designs and components, a new line of Heathkits ought not to jettison vacuum tubes completely, especially for the audiophile market.

Your comments are welcome.

Resources

  • Fisher, L.M., "Plug Is Pulled on Heathkits, Ending a Do-It-Yourself Era," The New York Times, March 30, 1992.

  • Rostky, G., "A Tale of the Unstoppable Electronic Kit," EE Times, Oct. 2, 2000.

  • "Whatever Happened to Heathkit," Electronic Design, Feb. 18, 2009.

  • Swidwa, J., "Disassembly complete: Heathkit is no more," Herald Palladium, July 19, 2012.

  • The Heathkit Virtual Museum, http://www.heathkit-museum.com (retrieved Dec. 10, 2013)

  • Blum, J., Exploring Arduino Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry, Wiley, 2013.

  • Severance, C., "Massimo Banzi: Building Arduino," Computer, Jan. 2014.

  • Lucky, R., "The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Electronic Kits," IEEE Spectrum, Jan. 2014.

  • Nostalgic Kits Central, http://www.nostalgickitscentral.com (schematics and specifications)

  • The Original Heathkit Collection, http://www.heathkit.org

 

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