Anyone Remember Heathkits?
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when I was a teenager, building electronic kits from Heathkit was my favorite hobby. During the Heathkit era which lasted from the late 1940’s through the mid 1980’s, it was possible to build a wide range of things from hi-fi/stereo and ham radio to computers, radio control, and home electronics. Heathkits were first marketed by mail-order, with advertisements appearing in electronics and amateur radio publications such as Popular Electronics, Radio Electronics, CQ and QST (the monthly membership journal of AARL). I eagerly awaited the next issue of these magazines to see if Heath had introduced any new kits. Even more exciting was the arrival of a new Heathkit catalog. The largest kit I ever built was the TX-1 “Apache” Ham Transmitter.
Edward Bayard Heath founded the Heath Aeroplane Company during the early 1900’s as an airplane kit company and it remained in the aircraft and replacement part business until roughly 1945. Then an ambitious engineer named Howard Anthony, who had purchased the Heath Company in 1935, bought a large stock of surplus World War II electronic parts, and designed an oscilloscope kit which was sold by mail order for $39.50. Mr. Anthony’s theory was that even people without technical knowledge of how things worked could build a kit and save up to 50% over comparable factory-built models. The oscilloscope kit turned out to be quite successful and the Heath Company was on it’s way. Mr. Anthony expanded the test instrument line with the addition of ham radio and hi-fi component kits.
The key to successful kit-building was the instruction manual, and Heathkit had great ones. They contained simple, non-technical instructions and large "exploded" diagrams that guided you through each and every step. The delight was not so much saving money by building a kit but rather the satisfaction and pride from building it — especially the last step of turning on the power and seeing what was formerly hundreds of parts come to life. I can remember people asking me what kind of TV we had. I would proudly say, "it’s a Heathkit and I built it". I was especially proud of the TX-1 "Apache" Ham Transmitter. It had 1,600+ parts in it. At 40+ years old, it now resides on a shelf in my basement.
At the peak, more than 300 Heathkits were available in eleven different product lines. The one’s I built included radios, TVs, test equipment, ham radio, and various gadgets. Friends and neighbors would buy Heathkits and I would build them for them for free. Learning how to use a soldering gun properly continues to serve me well for various home automation projects and other tinkering.
In the mid 1960’s, Heath branched out to retail outlets and added authorized service centers in several metropolitan cities. They later expanded into Thomas organ kits, computers, satellite television earth stations, even furniture and woodcraft, hoping to gain and maintain a critical mass of customers. Unfortunately, the market shrank instead of grew and Heathkit manufacturing ceased in the mid-1980’s when Heath closed down their kit business. Although Heathkits are no longer manufactured or widely available, unassembled kits are sometimes offered in eBay auctions or in the classified section of electronics magazines such as QST. The Heathkit Company, Inc. is still located in Benton Harbor, Michigan and concentrates on electronic learning materials for classrooms, schools and training centers.
Even though the Heathkits are mostly out of the picture, the memories of Heathkit certainly are not — thanks to the web. The Heathkit Virtual Museum was built in chronological order, beginning with vacuum tube kits. The information on the site was derived from Heathkit marketing materials as well as contributions from individual Heathkit enthusiasts and former Heath employees. It brings back a lot of memories to be able to see a picture of a Heathkit that you built 40+ years ago. There is a lot of history on the site. The graphic used in the masthead is an artist’s rendering of the Heath plant that was constructed in 1958. Additional photos on the site depict the Service Department, a Kit Packaging Line, the Consultation Department, the Mail Order Department, and Heath Hams.
A LISTSERV [[email protected]] has been set up for anyone interested in communicating with other Heathkit fans. You can also use it to request technical information or assistance, locate unassembled kits or parts from other members, announce where unassembled kits or parts might be available, and share ideas and thoughts about Heathkits with fellow enthusiasts. The list has over 500 members and the searchable List Archive includes all messages posted to the list since January, 2000.
The Heathkit Virtual Museum site is a participant in the new .museum domain, which began operating on November 1, 2001. With it, museums acquired significant new means for increasing their visibility and identity on the Internet. The Museum Domain Management Association – MuseDoma – is responsible for the policies and operation of the new domain. Registration in .museum is restricted to museums, museum organizations and individual members of the museum profession according to the definition established by the International Council of Museums (ICOM).