Heathkit's 50th: The Green Turns to Gold
By Chuck Penson, WA7ZZE
Most hams over 40 probably have at least a vague idea of the history of the Heath company. For those significantly younger--or significantly older--here is brief chronology of the events that lead to one of the most remarkable stories in ham radio.
- About 1900--Ed Heath founds the Heath Aeroplane Company. The product is a light plane.
- 1926--Heath introduces an airplane in kit form.
- 1931--Ed Heath is killed during a test flight.
- 1935--Engineer Howard Anthony buys the bankrupt Heath company at auction and goes into production of aircraft parts and accessories--including aircraft radios.
- About 1945--After WWII the aircraft business slumps, due in part to a loss of military contracts. A couple of friends persuade Anthony to go in with them on a load of war surplus parts, including aviation and electronics components. Anthony decides there is more money in selling surplus electronics and gives the airplane business to his friends.
- About 1946--The surplus electronics business is very good, and Anthony begins to explore the idea of offering test equipment in kit form--an idea he had thought about years earlier. Because his stash of parts included several thousand 5 inch CRTs, the idea of a kit oscilloscope occurs to him as a good trial product.
- 1947--Anthony invests in some metal fabrication and painting equipment, subcontracts the scope's design, scribbles a few simple instructions on how to assemble it, and buys an ad in the August issue of Electronics
magazine. The rest, as they say, is history.
For most hams and electronics buffs, the history of Heathkit really began in 1947 with the release of the company's first electronic kit product--the O-1 oscilloscope. What followed was a flood of products and nothing less than a revolution in consumer electronics.
Because Heath's kits were not burdened with the cost of assembly, they put electronics equipment within reach of virtually every working adult--and almost every kid with a modest allowance. For the first time, the average Joe could afford quality electronic products. The impact of kit-form electronics was thunderous and today, 50 years later, we can still feel the aftershocks.
Opportunities once only available to those with lots of money were suddenly available to anyone with enough smarts to see the possibilities. Low cost Heath test equipment meant those who worked for someone else suddenly had the means to strike out on their own. TV and radio repair shops bloomed like madness. It meant those with ideas for new products could now afford the equipment needed to design and build them. Perhaps most importantly, it meant young electronics enthusiasts now had the means to fully explore their interests. With Heath-equipped test benches set up wherever space permitted, basements, attics, and garages became the proving grounds for a new generation of technicians. And with its introduction of amateur radio products, Heath brought tens of thousands of new hams into the hobby.
The history of Heathkit is full of superlatives: first, biggest, best, newest, most affordable, most powerful, most features, most advanced, and on and on. With a cadre of clever and innovative engineers, Heath was always coming up with better, simpler, and more efficient ways of doing things. Clearly written and profusely illustrated instruction manuals and an unparalleled commitment to customer service paved the road for a company on a most remarkable journey. And along the way, Heath gathered a following of customers whose unshakable loyalty to the company remains unmatched to this day.
Over the years Heath developed and sold hundreds of kit products. With more than 150 kits, they had the largest amateur radio product line ever amassed by a single company. Heath sold nearly 40,000 HW-101 transceivers alone--more of a single product than anyone before or since, even more than Collins. Its success in test equipment was even greater, with nearly 400 test equipment products over the life of the company. In its first ten years Heath sold an astonishing 500,000 VTVMs. It is likely that by the time the last one went out the door in the early 90's more than 2,000,000 had been sold. It is also likely they sold that many oscilloscopes. Over the years Heath designed more than 60 models of scopes. Then, of course, there were all the consumer products--countless hi-fi, stereo, TV, and home improvement kits. There were metal detectors and microwaves, Boonie-Bikes and slot cars, computers and compactors. For a while you could even get furniture in kit form.
For almost 30 years Heathkit could do no wrong. But by the mid 70's the weight of change was beginning to press on Heath with increasing discomfort. Technology was beginning to cycle so quickly Heath could hardly keep up. Halfway through a project, for example, Heath could find itself working on a outmoded idea. And as if that weren't enough, off-shore manufacturers were becoming seriously competitive. Then, in 1979, Zenith bought Heath. What at first glance appeared to be a great relationship quickly turned catastrophic. Zenith was interested only in Heath's computer products and began to siphon off huge quantities of cash and other resources to pursue its own agenda. Then came the layoffs and a deadly plunge in morale. In addition to the internal problems, there were major shifts going on outside. Heath's original customer base was aging, and younger folks seemed to have neither the time or inclination to assemble kits. The age of instant gratification had arrived. All of these forces--and others--conspired to submerged Heath below crush-depth. The resulting implosion left its customers stunned and a void that may never be completely filled. Small wonder.
Today, 50 years after a blurry green wiggle first appeared on the face of the O-1's war surplus CRT, collectors and fans alike are providing a safe and happy home for many of Heath's best products. Hundreds--if not thousands--of Heathkit transmitters and receivers are still in active duty. Circuits are still checked with Heath VTVMs. Audiophiles still listen to vinyl records with Heath's Williamson amplifiers. And somewhere, a Boonie-Bike still roams the back country.
The Heath Company still exists, and while they no longer make kit products, the company is alive and well and profitable, providing many a ham with a glimmer of hope than one day the fire that drove a revolution might be rekindled. Hope springs eternal.
Happy 50th anniversary, Heathkit. As long as there are hams, there will always be a place for you.
This article originally appeared in the January, 1997, issue of Electric Radio
and appears here by permission of the author. Appreciation is given to Chuck Penson
, WA7ZZE, for allowing his article to be published here. Another version of this article appeared in the April, 1997, issue of QST
, the official journal of the American Radio Relay League
, under the title of "Heathkit's 50th: The Green Turns to Gold". Chuck may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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