The Heathkit Legacy

The Heathkit Legacy

As published in Monitoring Times, July 2013

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.

All five generations of Heathkit four-band entry-level communications receivers plus a regenerative,
cover picture for Monitoring Times magazine, July 2013

Bottom left to right; GR-91, GR-64, SW-717, Top; AR-3, AR-2 and GR-81 (regen)
Monitoring Times July 2013 cover Heathkit shortwave receivers and a regenerative

The Heathkit Legacy

by 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).

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.

Helpful hams
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.

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".

Heathkit manual cover designs

Early beginnings
It all began with Edward Heath who bought a small company in 1912 selling airplane parts. After World War I, as the Heath Airplane Company, he sold surplus aircraft and parts and offered flying instruction. He was a successful light-plane racing pilot, having won at the National Air Races in his "Baby Bullet" airplane.(1) By 1926, Heath sold an airplane kit, everything from just blueprints to all the parts and pieces to build his "Parasol"(2), a single-seater monoplane so-named because the center of the airplane wing was located above the pilot. Heath's small company had an excellent reputation, but he died in an airplane crash during a test flight for a new design on February 1, 1931. The business was carried on by another pilot who changed the name but went bankrupt several years later. Howard Anthony bought the company in 1935 at bankruptcy sale, reportedly with $300, his wife's life savings. Anthony had built and flown his own airplane at the age of 12. In 1932-35, he had operated a radio sales, service and custom design shop.(3) But 1935 was the height of the Depression and Anthony and his wife struggled to make ends meet at their airplane business for the first few years. However, the company soon built a following in private aviation circles for light plane parts such as a steerable tail wheel, plexiglass windshields, snow skis, and an inspection port. (4)

Howard Anthony and the Heath Company
Anthony had changed the name back to the Heath Company because of the its reputation for excellent products at reasonable prices. He kept that reputation. The first electronic device he sold was not a kit but a low-cost aircraft radio receiver designed at his direction by Meissner. Costing less than third of the comparable RCA product, it was battery operated and did not require a specific aircraft electrical system. He followed up with a low-cost directional antenna. Anthony's genius was not only knowing the needs of his customers but designing systems that were lower in cost but did the job. For example, directional loop antennas of the time used a relatively expensive slip-ring contact. Anthony simply used a very flexible lead to avoid that cost.

Wartime contracts - surplus
During World War II, Anthony secured several government contracts such as skids for military cargo gliders and spotter plane windshields of molded plexiglas. In the Spring of 1946 with the end of those war contracts, Anthony's work force dropped from 125 to 8. He had to make a change. At first he bought quantities of government surplus electronic parts and assemblies, selling those directly. His first two ads in Radio News in August 1947 still show airplanes as part of the Heath Company logo. The ads include a Navy ARB receiver and a Collins Autotune transmitter as well as oil condensers and other parts. Later ads include ARC-5 "Command" receivers and transmitters for which Heath offered power supply kits.

Heath Company surplus ads in Radio News, August 1947

Heath starts in the kit business
As a do-it-yourselfer, Anthony had built personal test equipment earlier in his career because commercial models were too expensive for him. The scope and its principles of operation fascinated him. An article appeared in the October 1946 Radio News by Lyman E. Greenlee titled "Build This 5 inch Cathode Ray Oscilloscope". Greenlee noted that with government surplus parts, the scope could be built for about $35. However, the parts had to be located, the chassis needed to be laid out and drilled, and a front panel needed to be made, all of which complicated making a homebrew scope. Anthony saw an opportunity. With a large purchase of surplus 5BP1 cathode-ray oscilloscope tubes and a quantity of surplus scope transformers, he decided to offer a complete oscilloscope kit. His first run was for 100 kits which he advertised along with his regular surplus items in an ad in the November 1947 Radio News. Price of the kit was $39.50. It was a close copy of the Greenlee schematic, but the Heath scope was a complete kit with a machined bezel, a silk screened panel and none of the homebrew look. The ad notes, "This kit makes an excellent training course".

Heathkit first oscilloscope ad Radio News October 1947 and first VTVM ad December 1947

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.

Heathkit test bench 1948-49 -- C-1 capacitor tester, T-2 signal tracer, G-1 signal generator

Customer support builds loyalty
Heathkit test equipment construction appealed not only to the typical radio/TV repair shops that blossomed along with television after WWII but also to hobbyists from all walks of life. What quickly set Heath apart was the detail and step-by-step instructions in the construction manuals. The "we will not let you fail" motto started early as an attitude that forged the company's success and can be traced right back to Anthony, a man known for his integrity.

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.

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.

Howard Anthony, "Mr. Heathkit".

Corporate ownership begins
The death of Howard Anthony left his very capable wife Helen, who had handled the finances for Heathkit, devastated but determined to sell Heathkit to a company that would keep the current employees and the Benton Harbor location. This again reflected the integrity of the Anthonys. The purchaser was Daystrom, a manufacturer diversifying into military electronics and technology.

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 "Benton Harbor Lunch Boxes"; Twoer, Sixer, and Tener

Heathkit Amateur Radios
In addition to test equipment and hi-fi offerings that paralleled the growth in electronics, ham radio kits became a major product line. Kits became increasingly more complex, again in parallel with ham radio equipment generally. The early Heathkit AT-1 transmitter quickly gave way to the DX series including the DX-20, 35, 40, and 100. Then came the green tribal name series of big box single sideband and VHF offerings as separate receivers and transmitters. Heath's most popular ham product line was an inexpensive transceiver quickly dubbed the "Benton Harbor lunchbox." The cabinet was the same size as my SG-8 signal generator. Versions were produced for the 2, 6, and 10 meter ham bands as well the citizen's band CB-1. Each was an inexpensive and relatively simple crystal-controlled transmitter and superregenerative receiver. The Heathkit "Cantenna" also sold well. It was a simple but ingenious design of a resistive dummy-load in an oil-filled gallon paint can. Several single band transceivers were produced for both HF and VHF. After Collins introduced its excellent but expensive KWM-2 transceiver for the 80 to 10 meter HF bands, Heath introduced the SB-100. The SB series of sets were quickly dubbed by hams as "the poor man's Collins".

Heathkit SB-101 ham "shack" set-up.
SB-101 transceiver, SB-600 speaker with HP-23B power supply inside, SB-610 signal monitor.
On top, HM-102 power meter, HM-15 SWR meter. Front, HDP-21A mike

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".

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".

Heathkit MR-18 Direction Finder

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.

Mohican GC-1A, Heathkit's first all-transistor shortwave receiver

Zenith takes over
The Fall 1979 catalog introduced the H-88 and 89 "All-in-One" computer comparing its price and features to the Pet, Apple, and the Radio Shack TRS-80. More peripherals and interface cards and software were introduced. It was the success of the Heathkit Data Systems computers that caught the eye of the Zenith Radio Company which purchased Heath from Schlumberger in 1979. Zenith renamed the computer division as Zenith Data Systems. During this era, Zenith also changed its name to Zenith Electronics Corporation. The 1980 catalog lists the 54 Heathkit Electronic Centers as "units of Veritechnology Corporation", another name change. Zenith was mainly interested in Heathkit's computer division and gave short shrift to the kit business. Heath's kit sales steadily declined after 1981. In the 40th anniversary 1987 catalog, I counted 221 kits with some of those being modules for other kits. That catalog also includes a larger proportion of assembled products not available as kits, a trend that would continue in the next several years.

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
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.

So what ended the kit market for Heath?
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.

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 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.