So Long, and Thanks for all the Crystals

There was a time when anyone involved with radio transmitting — ham operators, CB’ers, scanner enthusiasts, or remote control model fans — had a collection of crystals. Before frequency synthesis, became popular, this was the best way to set an accurate frequency. At one time, these were commonly available, and there were many places to order custom cut crystals.

One of the best-known US manufacturers of quartz crystals still around is International Crystal Manufacturing (ICM). Well, that is, until now. ICM recently announced they were ceasing operations after 66 years. They expect to completely shut down by May.

In a letter on their website, Royden Freeland Jr. (the founder’s son), committed to fulfilling existing orders and possibly taking some new orders, raw materials permitting. The company started making products out of Freeland’s father’s garage in 1950.

Another big name that might still be around is Jan Crystals. We say might, because although their website is live, there’s not much there and the phone number is not quite disconnected but it is “parked.” There are also some posts on the Internet (where everything is true) indicating they are out of business.

Even if you didn’t do radio work, crystals are a staple in digital systems where an accurate clock is necessary and some types of filters, too. Of course, you can still get them, you just may not be able to get them made in the United States soon.

If you want to know more about the technology behind crystals [Jenny] has you covered. Crystals are one of those things that have not changed much in a long time, so you might enjoy the very 1960’s vintage U. S. Air Force training film below.

49 thoughts on “So Long, and Thanks for all the Crystals

  1. We need crystals even for frequency synthesizers to form a timebase for the synthesizer, but we do not need crystals made for every frequency we might ever need to use as we did before synthesis. It’s much easier to make the same product over and over again than to take a custom order for the frequency of that new repeater on 2 meters in your area.

    1. Nothing wrong with China supplying cheap crystals but there are some areas of manufacturing that should be considered strategic. Crystal manufacturing should be one of those industries.

        1. So true and most law makers are lawyers and there is a negative correlation between the number of law books and the number of science/engineering books they have read. It is also true that most lawmakers would have to go ask an expert to understand what I just said. :-)

      1. Yeah. IMO countries all should be able to build a functional computer system with radios using parts sourced entirely within their own country from ore up, so that they are never locked out of ability to use them. But no country can do that today except perhaps China, and many countries are unable to produce even enough food for themselves.

        1. Agreed and it also make it’s less likely a single catastrophe could set back civilization.
          One big danger with having a few global suppliers for an item is a single natural or man made disaster can shut down the supply of it.

  2. International Crystal was big. They had a mobile showroom in the early sixties, in the form of an airplane. They manufactured equipment, frequency meters and maybe other test equipment like service monitors. They had CB sets for a while. For a while they sold a 100mW license free transceiver for the CB band, like a fancy walkie talkie, the actual transmitter remote so it could be placed up high with the shirt antenna, DX was legal for that, but the usual walkie talkie had severe limitations.

    They long offered various kits, some tube modules related to radio in the early sixties, then a line of transistor circuit board kits about 1967.

    I think later they built satellite tv receivers.

    For a long time they had a full page ad every month in QST, towards the front where I thought there was a premium price. They also advertised in the other ham magazines, and probably the hobby electronic magazines.

    Michael

    1. I vaguely remember the mobile showroom. They did have a variety of products. I remember buying a 100 MW CB transmitter for a project. I wonder if there is an on line link to there catalog from the 70’s? It is indeed sad to see them go because the availability for crystals for vintage equipment will dry up.

    1. No in this case a shrinking and increasingly specialist market.

      WWII gave an illusion about crystals, so many surplus afterwards that the hobbyist could mostly find something close enough. Commodity crystals were rare, 100KHz and 1MHz, and after color tv, color subcarrier crystals, 3.579MHz.

      Crystals were needed for stability, and precise frequency. Every broadcast transmitter needed one, CB sets needed two per channel, two way radios needed two per channel. That could add up to a lot of crystals.

      Then digital electronics came along. Crystals became more common (before digital the average home would only have one crystal, in their color tv), and suddenly lots of commodity crystals in the catalogs. Odd looking frequencies, because the frequency was divided down by binary counters. Many more transistors in an IC, but an IC and a color subcarrier crystal could generate all the tones for touch-tone, virtually no other components needed, replacing coils and precision capacitors, and no adjustment needed.

      But digital ICs also made it feasible to have digital synthesizers, endless frequencies all locked to a reference frequency, eliminating endless crystals, or drifting variable oscillators. So watches, clocks and am/fm radios suddenly needed crystals, but all of a specific frequency. Endless two way radios no longer needed two crystals per channel, the radios could tune all the channels, the technician set them with software.

      Fifty years ago we were on the cusp of this, forty years ago the transition was well under way. So time has passed, the old equipment that needed so many crystals are collectors items. There is still need for the rare custom ground crystal, but far more limited than fifty years ago.

      So it’s no longer a craft. I have no idea how commodity crystals are made, but I assume a streamline process if for no other reason than they can do batches to the same frequency, and aren’t fussing about what oscillator they are grinding the crystal for. Now, you buy the crystal and use the circuit specified by the crystal company.

      This will be a hardship for people keeping old radios going, but lots of old components are no longer made. A few years go Collins said they would stop making mechanical filters, a big loss, yet demand for the top of the line filters is greatly diminished by technology, digital processing removing the need for analog filters.

      Michael

      1. Seen that happen to household electronics during my lifetime and I’m not even that old. When I was a kid we had lots of crystals to tune in radios, tvs and cb radios. CB radios in particular were hungry for them. It was during my teens I seen IC based approaches become affordable by amateur radio operators. Instead of using multiple crystals peppered around, you just had one tuned for a root frequency and used digital logic to bang out the other frequencies.

      2. No one’s is disputing that technological advancements have eliminated the need for crystals with non-standard frequencies. Still, almost every PCB with a microcontroller will have a crystal perhaps with a standard value like 12MHz or 8MHz on it….That’s still a tonne of crystals that are bought & sold….plenty of demand there. The reason why a company like ICM is unable to turn a profit selling these standard values is because Asian companies are able to make them for cheaper….why? because they have the massive manufacturing base (which the western rich and powerful voluntarily relinquished to them to save a few pennies on the dollar), cheap labor and non-existing regulations.

        1. But you’re assuming commodity crystals are made the same way as custom grinding them. I don’t think International Crystal made commodity crystals, certainly not on the scale of today. They could survive because there was enough demand for custom crystals, and a client base willing to spend the money. Think of it like crafting crystals.

          Their factory is made for the finicky work of making precise crystals, not churning out way more crystals of much lesser specs. Moving to commodity crystals may require a large outlay of cash to make the transition, I can’t imagine they are made by hand, and then be facing way larger competitors.

          They are stopping to do what they did, because the market for their products, custom crystals, is drying up. If they shifted to commodity crystals, it would interrupt retirement plans, and require effort and money to adapt to commodity crystals.

          Michael

  3. I believe this has more to do with discrete component manufacturing consolidating for the Far East than anything else. It would not be economical to create a new crystal line here in the US to compete with Asia. I attended a liquidation auction of Monitor crystals some years ago in Oceanside and people in that business were saying the cost to make a production line for modern tolerances and frequencies is on the order of making a semiconductor fab and as technology moves on so must your process. Additionally many of these older companies cannot afford to come up to date for environmental regulations. A local company went out of business because the required monitoring equipment was in the millions of dollars and there was not enough profit in the products to justify it. It’s just the way things are.

    1. Yeah, the “rope” is getting too expensive. “We will hang the capitalists with the rope that they sell us. ” Praying to the golden calf and destroying your own manufacturing will bring the consequences.

    1. Just read my post and realized it sounded pretty snarky. Sorry.
      I really like the articles you write on hackaday, just trying to correct a minor mistake in an interesting article about crystals (I’ll have to look up Digital Frequency Synthesizers, I hadn’t heard of them before)

  4. there are lots of technology that needs crystals the pc needs to have a crystal for the cpu clock.

    anyone out there rich enough to buy out the failing company and run it?

  5. What about All American.
    Cant have All American if we have companies that Are closing there doors.
    I think some one should make it against the law for a company that is the last of its kind in America to close its doors.
    They need to fix this.

    1. What a weird thing to say. Apart from the fact that any state that would force people to continue a business that isn’t profitable would be a disgusting dictatorship, the problem is that the business doesn’t make enough money to be sustainable. If YOU want to keep the business afloat, feel free to write them a big check of YOUR money.

    1. But since it’s still in the original family’s hands, I suspect some if it is that the owner is ready to retire, and nobody in the family ready or willing to take over the company. With a smaller base if customers for custom crystals, that probably impacted.

      A lot of small electronic stores never made the transition to integrated circuits, deciding it was a time to retire, or real estate value made it worthwhile to sell. We had our own version if “Radio Row” here, a cluster of electronic parts stores downtown, and by 1980 all but one had closed down. And the whole area is drastically different, made over considerably.

      Michael

  6. I had one of the early “synthesized” CB radios, a Lafayette Comstat 25B. It used a half dozen crystals to generate 25 CB channels using mixers. I have thought it would be neat to build an FM stereo receiver using crystal synthesis. It would have very low noise.

    1. This was my first “synthesized” 2M rig http://rigreference.com/en/rig/2489-Clegg_FM_27B

      I think it was more VXO or LF VFO and a mixer, but still.

      Then when I was operating the W5YD station back in the early 80s we wanted to work satellite. We rigged a key to an Icom 2M FM rig that used diodes on a little PCB to set the /N counter for the PLL. We wired a bunch of wires off one set of diode holes and out to a box with switches. That way you could on the fly adjust the thing in 5 kHz increments for doppler. Ugly but it worked.

  7. Did I miss the part of this discussion that covered MEMs based oscillators? Although they still have jitter/phase noise problems they are improving and have introduced some with Stratum 3 compliance. They have a size, hysteresis and temperature range advantage over Quartz. I think this represents a larger threat to the quartz based crystal industry than overseas manufacturing.

  8. Sadly, things change.

    RCA, Digital Equipment Corp, Data General (insert huge list here) all had to come to grips with market change and ultimately lost. When product earnings suffer 10 fold price reduction from competition pressure coupled with a technology shift… we see our favorite things fade away. I honestly feel really bad ICM and I also see that they ultimately had little choice but to take this course.

    I do feel really bad that it comes to this. The crazy thing is… so often we see companies pushed into core-competencies (essentially single points of failure) and then selling off their side industries… and these spun off side industries survive when sometimes the parent… doesn’t or they end up floundering trying to re-invent themselves.

  9. Here’s an addendum.

    I just read an article that the home microwave oven turns fifty this year, those Amana Radarange ovens.

    But it jarred a memory. Heathkit had a microwave oven kit at ä later point, and I was thinking of that as an early example. But, it was International Crystal that had one. A search shows they were advertising it by late 1967, and there was an article in Popular Science in 1968.

    That has to be a story. A very consumer type product, the closest they’d previously came were those CB sets, when CB wasn’t that mainstream. How well did it do? They sold it for some years. It reflects the company, grinding those crystals but having money as a result to go into new areas.

    Michael

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