Do you, or did you, make Heathkits? If so please post up your fond memories (or anything else) in the comments, I’m writing up a Heathkit related column and I wanted to include some comments from folks who grew up making these or have/had interest in them!
Heathkits were products of the Heath Company, Benton Harbor, Michigan. Their products included electronic test equipment, high fidelity home audio equipment, television receivers, amateur radio equipment, electronic ignition conversion modules for early model cars with point style ignitions, and the influential Heath H-8, H-89, and H-11 hobbyist computers, which were sold in kit form for assembly by the purchaser.
No knowledge of electronics was needed to assemble a Heathkit. The assembly process did not teach much about electronics, but provided a great deal of what could have been called “electronics literacy,” such as the ability to identify tube pin numbers or read a resistor color code. Many hobbyists began by assembling Heathkits, became familiar with the appearance of components like capacitors, transformers, and tubes, and were motivated to find out just what these components actually did. For those builders who had a deeper knowledge of electronics (or for those who wanted to be able to troubleshoot/repair the product in the future), the assembly manuals usually included a detailed “Theory of Operation” chapter, which explained the functioning of the kit’s circuitry, section by section. Heath developed a relationship with electronics correspondence schools (e.g., NRI). Heath supplied electronic kits to be assembled as part of courses, with the school basing its texts and lessons around the kit.
Heathkits could teach deeper lessons. “The kits taught Steve Jobs that products were manifestations of human ingenuity, not magical objects dropped from the sky,” writes a business author, who goes on to quote Jobs as saying “It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one’s environment.
By the 1980s, the continuation of the integration trend (printed circuit boards, integrated circuits, etc.), and mass production of electronics (perhaps especially computers overseas and in plug in modules) eroded the basic Heathkit business model. Assembling a kit might still be fun, but it could no longer save much money. The switch to surface mount components and LSI ICs finally made it impossible for the home assembler to construct an electronic device for significantly less money than assembly line factory products. As sales of its kits dwindled during the decade, Heath relied on its training materials and a new venture in home automation and lighting products to stay afloat.
Post up in the comments!