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The Rise and Fall of Heathkit -- And Rise of SparkFun


I'm not an engineer, but I certainly grew up in a family of them. My dad is a metalurgical engineer and works in failure analysis for Atmel. My grandfather on my mom's side is also an engineer and worked for HP for many years. Going way back, my great-grandfather was a blacksmith on the Midland Railroad (maybe not a formal engineer, but some of the stuff he built certainly took some engineering acumen). So it might come as no surprise that one day, while rummaging through my grandpa's basement, I came across a dusty box with what appeared to be a stereo in it. On top of the stereo was a manual with the words "Heathkit" across the front. Turns out, it was my dad's old Heathkit Preamplifier.


Ring any bells?

My dad took me aside and explained how he built it. How he had saved his money for the kit, ordered it, and then put it together. We looked over the "Theory of Operation" section and he explained to me what some of it meant. He used it to teach me about resistor color codes and what a diode does. For a 15-year old kid, it was actually pretty cool. I loved the idea of a company like Heathkit, but by that time they were pretty much out of the electronic kit business. So when this article titled "The Rise and Fall of Heathkit -- And Rise of SparkFun" by Electronic Design's Communication Editor Lou Frenzel came out, it definitely brought back some memories.

It is quite an honor to be compared so favorably to Heathkit, a company that, for many of us here at SparkFun, introduced us to electronics. Certainly, in a way, Heathkit is SparkFun's predecessor and one of the founders of the entire DIY movement. Pretty cool stuff. Give the article a read. What was your favorite Heathkit? Tell us about it in the comments.


Comments 40 comments

  • Another tangentially related comment. One of my old bosses related how he became interested in electronics. He asked his dad:“Can I have my own TV in my room?” Answer: “No. Are you nuts?”

    A couple of weeks later his dad brought home a TV and said: “This is yours. The only catch is, it doesn’t work. But I’ll drive you to the library where you can check out books on TV repair, and I’ll pay for the parts.”

  • I remember my first Heathkit (1976)- You know the ones that used a Lego™ type of base and had the electrical parts encased in a red square brick that you attached wires and pins to connect to other bricks, that sat on the main platform. It had a big blue main base to the right of the white Lego board, with a power switch, a adjustable resistor, a Morse code key, and speaker.

    I wanted a chemistry set. My mom was worried I would blow up the house because I could not read very well (at age seven) do to having Dyslexic (which was not diagnosed till many years later- back in the 70’s they really didn’t know what Dyslexia was, let alone what Auditory Dyslexia was too). So, at age seven, she bought me a Heathkit at the insistence of some male relatives. The only problem was sometimes I could not get the project to work right. She would have to check out my circuits; in the process she learned some electronically dynastic skills. The only reason I point this out is it helped in her own career as a Registered Nurse when it came to hooking things up in the ER. Years later, one of her instructors had to stop her when she was being trained on some new equipment, and told her to wait until she was told how to put it together. Turns out her instincts were correct on that new equipment. But before my Heathkit, she hadn’t a clue how to wire anything, let alone what a transistor was.

    • I had that lego based electronics kit from Heathkit too, I was 8yrs old in 1970. My older brother bought as a bday gift, he was still away serving in the military, so I had to build it myself cause my parents didn’t anything about electronics. Looking back I think that was the best approach to get young kids into electronics. I wish I kept it, my parents retired and cleaned out the house while I was gone. I still can’t find it in old catalog, but I only have a couple of copies.

      • update: found a later version, that was smaller, less features, but the same general layout. This had only one console, the early version had 2 consoles - with more instruments - and a larger breadboard area http://www.pinterest.com/pin/252412754088252616/

  • To be the heir to Heathkit, you need to make kits that are useful for everyday stuff and put them in nice enclosures.

    Kits like clocks, weather stations, stereos, and TVs (all of which Heathkit made) in living-room-friendly enclosures had obvious appeal to non-engineers and gently invited them into the hobby. A kid looking at a Heathkit could think “Wow, I can make something that works and looks as good as something I can buy at Sears.” Contrast that with a Sparkfun ClockIt. A kid looking at a Sparkfun ClockIt would say “That’s an ugly, geeky looking thing.” It sure doesn’t look like a clock!

    Even if you convinced him to buy it and assemble it, what’s he going to do with it? Use it as his regular alarm clock? The buttons are awkward and if it’s sitting on his nightstand, it’ll flop around at the end of its power cord, fall off the table, or get destroyed.

    Can Heathkit-quality kits be developed and sold for a reasonable price these days? I don’t know. Ramsey has a couple of kits that might qualify (they have a nixie clock with a nice enclosure, but it ain’t cheap). But in my book, that’s what it’ll take to be on par with Heathkit.

    As for me: I still own, use, and treasure my Heathkit clock. I also built the Heathkit H-9 computer terminal and used it with my first computer. Alas, I no longer have it.

    • I challenge you to check that with current youth. This year my daughter has asked for the Big Time Watch kit (original form, not the dots) and I’m quite certain that it’s for use. And glittery stickers.

      The Heathkit advantage was originally price: didn’t pay for assembly labor, the learning was a happy accident and the finish you find appealing was critical. Somewhere in the middle, there was an era where it was all about learning, finish was whatever but manuals mattered most. Now, it’s all about stock functions in a custom package or custom combination of functions: flexibility is the reason for a home build. Instead of a kit version, we have a mod-n-hack version of consumer products now that “looks like something I could buy at Sears” means “rebranded white goods” In the competition between “made in ” versus home made, kits can be THE way to have something with non-negative style.

      Thus things in common between Sparkfun and Heathkit are eminently hackable results, full schematics and bills of materials, and good build instructions. But Sparkfun kits are better for today than “Heathkit style” kits (except for Hams, when will Sparkfun carry a 144.390 MHz module for GPRS?). The Sparkfun manuals keep getting better, and may become Heath-quality soon enough. But there is no Heathkit finish: that was fashion for a time past. Instead Sparkfun stays on the inside of the final box. And that’s today’s nice finish.

      For what it’s worth, I started my soldering with the Heathkit code practice oscillator in the “all about learning” era. Gathered a fair bit of dust for years after that - learning was “finished”. In the last year or two, the components of that (keyer, sounder) have been used with both Arduino and Chumby hardware - both have been programmed to adaptively read Morse, so I could have “by hand” one-wire input. And the code practice function it was originally built for? Instead, my kids have a hacked together “make your own key” (just like light sabers) version built for two “operators” - code fight! Easy, common sub-circuits, but a combination not in stores.

      The kit you picked, the Clockit. When embedded in a cool case it is no longer the Clockit, it is the Cars Clock, the Coffee Can Awakener, the Transformer clock, the Pretty Pony clock… Hmm… is there an example of it as a Nyan Cat toasterclock yet? Can it be reprogrammed to play the right theme? It would be better if the buttons and screen were on the other side from the other components, to make putting it in something cleaner, but providing a pre-chosen would not add value as much as make it compete with injection molded cheapness.

      (Apologies about being a day late to the discussion: SF is on my Friday reading list, due to the new product schedule.)

  • I still have my Heathkit GC-1107 alarm clock, with the optional “Handcrafted by” brass nameplate on it. I remember the first time I used it as an alarm clock. The volume is so loud on those things that I almost flew into the ceiling when reacting to it from a deep sleep!!

    A few months later, my Dad bought a GR-1075 AM/FM Clock Radio for me to build for him. That was certainly a little more challenging to build, but not impossible.

    I still have both clocks to this day!

  • There was a comment about how Heathkit originally offered a price advantage over assembled products. My first experience with Heathkit was about 1963, when such an advantage did exist in a marginal way (whether that was due to the high cost of assmbly in the US or the manufacturers' penchant for profit margins isn’t obvious. However, by about 1977, the prices for Heathkits vs assembled electronics items was about the same. After that, the assembled became less. If you remember the explicit detail of the Heathkit construction materials and the way that the parts were bagged and labelled, it’s hardly a surprise, plus, not everyone was an engineer: Heathkit had to field calls from buyers who had mage mistakes and were clueless (expensive then, as it is now.) Long time gone. I have missed the Heathkit option for 20+ years.

  • My favorite Heathkits were the DX-40 transmitter (AM and CW), and the VF-1 VFO. The DX-40 went together easily and worked the first time. It was my first AM transmitter. The VF-1 plugged right into the crystal socket, and also worked the first time. Before going on the air, I checked its calibration against a surplus BC-221 frequency meter, and it was dead-on accurate. Right out of the box. Amazing.

    A point about what was attractive about Heathkits was the economics: some of the gadgets couldn’t be had elsewhere at any price. Some were a bit less expensive than a manufactured equivalent. All of them provided educational value that was priceless.

    Another point - about encouraging kids to do things with electronics: When I was 14 or so, my father noticed my interest in electronics. The first Heathkit (a little mono amplifier) arrived at Christmas. Other devices followed. The most important thing Dad did (I didn’t realize its significance until years later - I thought all Dads did things like that) was to enroll himself in a night electronics class at the local junior college. He worked a deal with the instructor so that I could tag along, though I wasn’t eligible to enroll. We took two semesters of basic electricity and electronics, and had a ball. That led me to a satisfying career in electronics, computers, and software engineering, and a lifetime of fun with ham radio.

    Heathkits provided the fertile soil for those seeds.

    My grandson (7) and I built the Simon kit a few months ago, and I think he’s hooked.

  • At my work we still use the Heathkit Educational Systems Books and Laboratories DC, AC, Semiconductor, Circuit and Digital (we dropped the uP one ten years ago, still have a ton of them). I teach electronics at a Vo-Tech for grade 9-12 I’ve tried using other books but always seem to end up using Heathkit. We also still use Heathkit trainers ET-3600 and ET-3700, both models came as a kits until my last order last year.

    When I was a student in a vo-tech studying electronics, it was just around when Heathkit closed up shop on their kits and got a ton of fire sale stuff and got to build a ton of kits too many to list. Some of my dads projects I still have his Heathkit 1092D Clock, still runs and have a couple of EC-1’s.

  • i’m playing rise of nations

  • My roommate at Clarkson University (then College) bought a Heathkit stereo amplifier, and practically soldered the whole thing myself before he could pry it away from me. I built a tube VOM to go with my DuMont dual-beam (not dual trace, but dual beam) oscilloscope.

    But the reason I write here is because Clarkson University was one of the first universities to give its incoming freshmen a computer. In our case it was the Heath/Zenith Z-100. Came with a monitor that looked surprisingly like a B/W Zenith television. The computers had 128K of RAM, and one floppy disk. Amazing that you could actually DO anything with them.

  • My second computer (after my Radio Shack “Trash 80”) was a Heathkit “portable” computer, an 8086 processor at a whopping 4.7 MHz with two 5¼" floppy drives! Running some version of DOS, amber on black display. I remember many nights staying up to the wee hours of the morning soldering circuit boards. It was exciting, fun, educational, at times frustrating, but I really miss those old kits. As a result of that experience, I have absolutely no fear of opening my computer and adding, moving, disconnecting parts, etc. My current computer is assembled from parts (no soldering on my part, however!) and it’s fast and reliable. Sparkfun requires a little more imagination and creativity than the old well-designed Heathkit equipment, but that’s really the fun, isn’t it?

  • Local Allied Electronics Stores, Knight, Heathkit, Burstein-Applebee and US General catalogs. A Zenith TV that would anchor the Nimitz but lasted until tubes were no longer available. I owe a good portion of my current career to the Heathkit AC/DC, Analog and Digital courses. It’s quite refreshing to see SparkFun, Adafruit and all the other net shops out there keeping the spirit alive.

    The major advantage today is you’re not likely to get a lethal shock off your creation. This was from the era when “real” boys and girls were playing around with 250-800V B circuits and had to worry about pulling 30kV off the flyback.

  • Hmmm… Looks like the article link is broken.

  • I wonder what sorts of things could work as a modern Heathkit-like thing.

    -Needs to be labor intensive to assemble but not too difficult, definitely no leadless SMT.

    -Can’t be ludicruously complex.

    -Could include mechanical complexity rather than electrical? Such as printers?

    -Are through holes harder to automate?

    Seems like a heathkit-style laptop could be cool, there is a lot to those beyond just electronics though motherboards are definitely not a make it yourself thing.

  • While attending MIT (Missouri Institute of Technology -LOL) I used to visit the Heathkit store in Kansas City -often. I built a few kits but gave the stuff away after assimilation. Long after HK’s demise a good friend gave me his working GR2000 color tv. These kits were awesome–the GR2000 had a heavy-copper plated steel chassis and this model had on-screen digital display of the time and channel. Sadly it was not prepared for the cable tv revolution because it only tuned over the air analog. I really liked the thorough design and documentation…excellent schematics and theory of operation and debugging tutorials. The build quality was…good as sparkfun and a raft of others we are blessed with today. Thanks for the memories, as the tune goes.

  • No one ever built a healthkit for much besides it’s advertised purpose. They were DIY versions of /existing/ consumer products.

    The difference is largely that Sparkfun components rely on the imagination of the Consumer, in short we now live in a repurposing world, and Healthkit was never that.

    I would have loved Heathkits as a kid - If I could afford them.

  • I learned on a bunch of Heathkits, as well as Eico, Radio Snack, and others. Good stuff, good memories. I still use some of my old Heathkit gear - and other peoples' Heathkits I’ve picked up at hamfests (sometimes working, sometimes I’d fix it, but fixing Heathkits is generally not too hard). I was encouraged early this year when Heathkit looked like it was going to start making kits again. Their first offering was to be a “garage parking assistant”, to be followed by amateur radio and audio gear (back to some of the places they’d always done well). Alas, it seems not to be - the heathkit.com domain appears to be parked at a registrar now.

  • I build many Heathkit’s starting back in 1968. My favorite kits were the Ham radio kits. I watched a movie titled Frequency a while back and notice one of the main characters was using either the SB-301 (receiver) or SB-401 (transmitter), don’t recall which one, but point is he was only using one of the pair as if it were a transceiver. I saw that and said to myself WTF ;)

  • In looking more closely at the picture, I realize that I have the triple output power supply that is shown stacked on another power supply on the lower shelf. Still use it frequently. I’ve had that since ‘77 or so. Also, I’m pretty sure the RF amp in the picture is an SB200 – I have an SB220 out in the storage shed still. Wow.

  • I started Building kits in the mid 60s, my first one a Vacuum Tube Stereo Amplifier (AA-151?). Then started building kits for friends and finally turned it into a business. Must have put together 40 or 50 projects all the way up to a Color TV receiver in 1969. I still have a few operational in my shop: an Audio Tracer, Power Supply and a “Transistor Stereo Audio Amplifier”. Now, on the verge of retirement, having discovered Sparkfun, I am about to start a new chapter of my hobby. This is going to be fun, in an age of instant gratification it’s refreshing to go back to something where most of the fun is in the journey.

  • Heathkit, Edmund’s Scientific, and Estes were my favorite catalogs when I was growing up. Even better than the Sears Wish Book at Christmas. My first Heathkit was a stereo receiver and pair of bookshelf speakers that I built when I was in junior high. I displayed the receiver as part of my science fair project. I remember that the assembly manual had a pretty good description of the theory of operation of FM and AM radio that I studied for my discussion. I also built one of the metal detectors and a voltmeter.

    The stereo and speakers were sold to my brother-in-law, but I still have the metal detector and voltmeter. The metal detector still worked the last time that I tried it, but sadly the voltmeter no longer works. I keep it around thinking that I’ll repair it someday.

    Heathkit will be missed. Edmund’s doesn’t carry all of the stuff that they used to (like telescope mirror grinding kits, blanks, etc.), but the optics part was spun off as a separate company, Edmund Optics. Estes still carries a good selection of rocket kits and engines though.

  • I got my ham radio ticket inthe 80s and built a digital keyer, an audio filter, a phone patch and an antenna tuner. I still have the tuner. Good stuff

  • I assembled the Heathkit GR88 analog (dial) tunable VHF high band receiver. My first handheld scanner with my wrist serving as the band sweeper and my ears the Carrier Detect that would cause my wrist to stop sweeping.

    In high school electronics class, I assembled the Heathkit vacuum tube tester (incredible amount of point-to-point wiring and soldering) and the TV Vector analyzer.

    Used my Eico VOM for testing until I moved to the major league Simpson 260!

    Great memories.

  • I purchased a Heathkit Digital Weather Computer back in 1980 and it’s still going strong. It has been installed in 5 different residences (including a live-aboard boat). Every time I have an issue with it, it is relatively easy to repair since I have all the documentation including the schematic, PCB diagrams, list of components and theory of operation discussion. That amount of documentation is what’s so good about. At times I have wanted to replace it just to get something more sexy, but these days, most of the popular ones are WIFI and therefore only update every few seconds instead of continuously.

  • I built several HeathKits over the years. A VTVM, and some of my early ham radio gear. Many of them were well done. Of course, in the days of wiring discrete components to tube sockets, the actual labor of assembly was a significant part of the cost of electronics, so HeathKits could be a good value. Now with roboticly assembled surface mount, if a human touches it the cost goes up. That forces kits into niche markets. It’s also hard to teach the fundamentals when all the interesting stuff is buried inside a black box.

    One company that is carrying on the HeathKit tradition is Elecraft Radio. Absolutely great ham radio gear, most of it available in kit form. Although for their flagship radio they had to give in to automatically assembled surface mount and the kit version is all screwdriver work. Still, Elecraft product quality and instruction manual quality exceed the HeathKit of old.

    I think I still have a HeathKit antenna tuner around someplace – I didn’t build it, it came from a swap fest.

  • My parents bought me a Heathkit experimenters kit back 1971 (I was 11). I built every circuit, but could never get the am radio to work. For the life of me I could not understand why the little electrons drawn in the theory of circuit design seemed to be going backwards on transistors. If actual electron flow vs. classical electron flow was known back then, I would have become an engineer.

  • I liked heathkit quite a bit. I made lots of their projects, though my parents bought me the clock one year, and we could not get it working once I had soldered it. However I don’t remember at all their kits being cheaper than a consumer product.

    I soo wanted their robot!

    Over the 90s and early 2000’s I think there was a significant drop in DYI electronics projects. I’m very happy to see it come back, and I’m glad Spark Fun and the old hold out Radio Shack* is embracing DYI.

    *Maybe some day Spark Fun will have stores everywhere, or “instant delivery” will be perfected, but until then, I still need the Shack on occasion (and sadly paying for shipping).

  • I miss that company. The first check I wrote in my life was for an IG-18 signal generator. 40 years later I still use it. Many other kits followed. I loaned the Thumb Tach to a guy and never got it back but still have that great manual for it and may build one again with a grandchild. Many years ago I began working for a small radio related design company down the road from our local Heathkit store. Our first power supplies were from Heathkit.

  • Yup, got a Heathkit VTVM out in the garage. Built a Heathkit AM table radio some 50 years ago.

    Despite all the fantastic kits they produced, it may be interesting to some to know that their first commercial kit had nothing to do with electronics. It was an airplane. Not a model airplane, one that the builder climbed inside of and flew. Mr. Heath was killed when one of them crashed.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heathkit

  • I loved Heathkit. I built one black and white TV and three color TVs. Also built the Hero robot and many of their other kits. They had absolutely the best manuals ever done. I still miss the local Heathkit store.

  • My dad also spent nigths and nights over assembling, soldering screwing, lamp mounting his Heatkit 40 watts amplifier. when he died gave it to my brotherinlaw, an electrical engineer. I’m in industrial engineering.

    It was still amplifying good clear stereophonic sound. I inherited of his violin.

    I was to young but to look at what he was making. Getting older i was acquinted with classial music. For me Heat was synonimous of quality. Jean Pierre eng.

  • I had a Heathkit SW Receiver, a signal generator, and I started a Ham Transceiver when I was in high school, but it never got finished. All was given away at a garage sale when my parents moved.

    Heathkit may have had a lot to do with my eventual career as an engineer.

  • I wonder how many people KNOW of Heathkit. I certainly don’t, but then again my dad and grandfathers were mechanical engineers and rarely associated themselves with electronics (except for doing handyman work of fixing a microwave from the 60’s).

    • My father is also a mechanical engineer. But math and drawing is what he does. Changing a lamp is hard task for him. When talking about DIY internet actually saved my life.

      I have now a master in electrical engineering from one of the best portuguese universities and I can assure that most of the time sparkfun teach me more about electronics than any other teacher :p

  • Began with a crystal am radio around age 13. In college built a VOM. Then built a color TV. Was dying to buy the robots and the H8 computer, but kids came along. Did build the H19 terminal. Then Heathkit quit making kits. Finally was able to obtain the the H8 & Hero robot via ebay just recently.

  • For our musician / engineer family hybrid it was the Heathkit metronome that graced our piano for some time.

  • I grew up with Heathkits. My first one that I got for my 13th birthday was the MM1 V.O.M. I used that meter for many years (I now have a Heath/Fluke DVM). I later build a GR54 Shortwave receiver, a Heathkit ham station with the SB102 transceiver, matching power supply, speaker, and microphone. I also built the Heath “Cantenna” dummy load. Other Heathkits I built included a 21" color TV, solid state multimeter, alarm clock, and AM/FM portable radio. I still have a few of these kits (all still working).

    I’ve since picked up a few ‘already built’ Heath units including the IT-1121 curve tracer, HM2140A RF power meter, IB5281 RF bridge, IT-21 tube checker, and an old SG-8 signal generator. The older test equipment comes in handy when repairing old tube radios. I’ve also built a clone of a Heath Grid Dip meter from the schematic using similar parts found in the junk box.

  • Oooo Yes. Built a Heathkit shortwave radio receiver, the kind that Glows in the Dark!


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