Photography courtesy of Terry A. Perdue – The Soul of an old heathkit by Dale Dougherty.
Howard Nurse built hundreds of Heathkits, starting in the 1950s with a ham radio transmitter kit, the DX-40. As a kid, he loved to go to sleep reading the catalog, which was a window into the world of electronics and a wish list of things he wanted to build.
“You have to understand the whole experience of a Heathkit,” he said. “It began with the catalog, which became part of my dreams and fantasies.” Once he had pored over the catalog and placed an order, he would count the days until his Heathkit box arrived, each day imagining where his letter was en route, who opened it in the Benton Harbor, Mich., headquarters of Heathkit, how the order was processed, and then estimating how many days it would take the post office to deliver it to his home in New Jersey. “Finally you’d get the package in the post box, after all this anticipation,” he said
Electronics were not readily accessible in the 50s. Nurse said the only place he could see electronic components was at a local TV repair shop, which he hung around. The Heathkit catalog opened a door to the new worlds of hi-fi components, electrical test equipment, ham radios, and television sets.
Nurse recalls the joy of opening up the Heathkit box. “First, you’d see the Heathkit manual, which was the heart of the kit.” Then he’d find the capacitors and resistors in brown envelopes. A transformer came wrapped in a spongy paper, a predecessor of bubble wrap. “Before you did anything, you had to go through the errata that came with the kit.” Then he would do an inventory of the parts — using a muffin tin to sort them. Additionally, he’d use corrugated cardboard to arrange the small capacitors and resistors in rows.
“You have to understand the whole experience of a Heathkit,” he said. “It began with the catalog, which became part of my dreams and fantasies.”
“After all this waiting and preparation, you’d begin to assemble the parts,” he said. “You started by attaching a few components, and then you got to solder, which was really fun.” He added, “Flux was an aphrodisiac.” When you finished the assembly and tried it, often it didn’t work. This, too, was part of the process of understanding electronics and learning to fix problems.
Nurse eventually got an insider’s view of Heathkit. In 1964, his father, David W. Nurse, went to work for the company as vice president, just as Howard was going off to college. His father was promoted to president in 1966 and remained in that position until he retired in 1980.
The Heathkit Company got its start in the 1920s as the Heath Aeroplane Company. Founder Eddie Heath developed do-it-yourself aircraft kits; his company’s most famous was the Heath Parasol, a plane with an overhead wing. Unfortunately, Heath was killed in 1931 in an airplane accident. An engineer named Howard Anthony bought the company from Heath’s widow in 1935. After World War II, Anthony bought a large stock of surplus wartime electronic parts, among them 5" CRTs (the legend is that he ordered a case but a carload arrived). He designed an oscilloscope kit for $39.50 and began to sell it through mail order. It took 10 years to go through the original CRT shipment. According to an excerpt from the Heathkit Catalog found on heathkit-museum.com, “Mr. Anthony based the success of his idea on the premise that anyone, regardless of technical knowledge or skills, could assemble a kit himself, and save up to 50% over comparable factory built models. All that would be required were a few simple hand tools and some spare time.”
In 1951, Anthony also died in an airplane crash. The company changed ownership several times, but continued to produce innovative kits, including a color TV set in 1964. Heathkit did $100 million in annual sales in the 70s on a wide variety of kits, including furniture and satellite television receivers.
“The Heathkit philosophy,” said Nurse, “was that they didn’t invent new products; they looked for products that were already successful in the market.” Then they turned them into kits for the do-it-yourself market.
Nurse believes he may have had a role in persuading Heathkit to undertake its first digital computer. In 1975, the cover of Popular Electronics featured the MITS Altair 8800, which originally sold as a kit that required the user to solder and assemble the components. Noticing that it was selling well, he told his father that there should be a Heathkit computer. In 1977, Heathkit launched the H8 Digital Computer, and it proved to be extremely successful. Based on the Intel 8080, the H8 came with 4K of RAM and, a cassette-based operating system. It had a keypad on the front and a nine-digit display. Nurse wrote a radio Teletype software program for the H8 and started his own business selling it.
In the 80s, interest in DIY electronics declined significantly, and the Heathkit Company stopped making kits. Today, Heathkits live on as memorabilia exchanged on eBay (about 25 kits a month) and in the enthusiasts who frequent websites and two Yahoo! groups. Heathkits have had a lasting impact on an entire generation. “I’ll bet that every engineer in this country over the age of 50 grew up building Heathkits,” said Nurse. “Heathkits were special. The best way I can explain it is,” and he paused. “A Heathkit had a soul.”
Dale Dougherty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and publisher of MAKE.