The Heathkit Mystery

Heathkit is a company that requires no introduction. From the mid-40s until the 90s, Heathkit was the brand for electronic kits ranging from test equipment, HiFis, amateur radio equipment, computers, to freakin’ robots. Their departure was a tragic loss for generations of engineers, electronic tinkerers and hobbyists who grew up with these excellent and useful kits.

Although Heathkit is dead, 2013 brought an announcement that Heathkit was back in the biz. A Facebook page was launched, a Reddit AMA was held, and the news was that Heathkit would rise from the dead in the first half of 2014. It’s now Christmas, 2014, and there’s no sign of Heathkit anywhere. Adafruit has been keeping a watchful eye on the on the (lack of) developments, and the only surprising thing to report is that there is nothing to report. There has been no new announcement, there are no new products, the “official” Heathkit website hasn’t been updated in a year, and no one knows what’s going on.

Adafruit has decided to dig into the matter, and while they’ve come up with a few items of note, there’s not much to report. A trademark for ‘HEATHKIT’ was filed October 27, 2014 – two months ago. An email was sent to the attorney of record and there has been no response.

This trademark was granted to Heathkit Company, Inc., incorporated in Delaware. Searching for any companies in Delaware using the Heathkit name returns exactly two results: Heathkit Company, Inc., and Heathkit Holdings, Inc.. Adafruit is probably going to pay the $20 to the Delaware Department of State to get the detailed information that includes Heathkit’s tax assessment and tax filing history.

The last bit of information comes from a whois on the heathkit.com domain. The relevant contacts have been emailed, and there are no further details. The Heathkit virtual museum was contacted for information, as was the news editor for ARRL.org. Nobody knows anything, or at least nobody is telling anybody anything.

To date, the only physical evidence of Heathkit’s rebirth is a geocache that was left at Brooklyn Bridge Park, announced during the Reddit AMA. This geocache was recovered by reddit user IFoundTheHeathKit, a throwaway account that had no posts before or since finding the cache. We have no idea what was in that geocache, what the ‘secret passphrase’ or set of instructions was, or if anything ever came of the promise to send one of the first new kits.

So there ‘ya go. A lot of words but no information. If you have any info, the Adafruit crew would like to have a word with you.

Update

The person who found the Heathkit geocache has been found:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The full comment referred to below is,

Hey, person who found the Heathkit geocache here. The secret passcode was an Einstein quote about radio vs wired communication (invisible cats), and they said they’d send me something in early 2014. Never had any communication except through FB, and they haven’t replied to any of my recent messages.

IFoundTheHeathKit might want to email Adafruit with a copy of all the emails.

56 thoughts on “The Heathkit Mystery

    1. Hey, person who found the Heathkit geocache here. The secret passcode was an Einstein quote about radio vs wired communication (invisible cats), and they said they’d send me something in early 2014. Never had any communication except through FB, and they haven’t replied to any of my recent messages.

    1. HAHAHAHAHA…
      By virtue of my laughter, I too am showing my age…
      I still have my EICO stereo amp hooked up and running. I’ve redesigned the power supply regulator though to give it a nice flat output…

      1. EICO had a large offering of bench test kits, I built 13 pieces at age 13 to 15, was making service calls at 17 for two local TV dealers. Now at 74, 3D printer (#13) will be finished printing Wednesday.

  1. It would be a shame if Heathkit and thier stuff never resurfaced. They ended up buying the Whitebox 914 robot and Im sure today something very similar and more powerful could be released for a fraction of the cost.

  2. Many Hams were keen to see the name Heathkit revived. Some of the equipment is still alive and well in many radio shacks including mine. I use a Heathkit SB1000 to blast RF right around the world. The tubes used are still available and despite some poor fix up jobs in the past it was easy to reinstate to near original condition.

    1. Wow. I just looked at the schematic lol. The normal filters everywhere, one massive voltage multiplier and an even more massive RF triode. It’s simple – I’ll certainly give it that lol.

      When I was 12 or 13 I made a 27MHz linear out of a couple of the old PA valve radios with the round top. The floor standing ones that were about 4 foot tall. Hardly any filtering, well it was illegal anyway as the band limit was 5 Watts.

      Anyway the output stage was about 8 valves because they really weren’t designed to be (ab)used as a RF output.

      I could SSB to anywhere there was someone with enough power to get back to me. It was a short lived experiment. The lack of filtering meant that any TV’s or radios in my area were just splattered with noise. I didn’t know very much about electronics and knew nothing about capacitive and inductive reactance and how to calculate filter parameters. All I basiclly knew was what voltages gets gain and how to tune for maximum smoke.

  3. I have a couple of pieces of Heathkit test gear in my shack that still get a fair amount of use. I have a Heathkit transistor tester that my dad built back in the day and gave to me fairly recently, and I have a Heath-Zenith frequency counter that I bought at a ham radio flea market (NEARfest if anyone is curious about it).
    At one time I also had a Heathkit oscilloscope, but it was stolen by someone I thought was a friend. I wouldn’t mind getting that one back, as it was my first scope and was pretty cool to play with.

    I would love to see Heathkit make a comeback, but…
    I think that if Heathkit stands any chance whatsoever of coming back into the marketplace and surviving, they need to dispense with all of the cloak and dagger stuff. They are trying to woo a segment of the market that thrives on openness, and are only making things worse for themselves. As it is, if/when they do come out of the shadows, I doubt that many of us are going to be very trusting of them.

  4. The ham + maker community may not be as lucrative as it once was, but a quick look around says that there is plenty of room in that market for well-designed kits with well-written instructions. Witness the huge following that Elecraft has built (especially around the K2), and the popularity of kits from TAPR, Byonics, Argent, Coastal Chipworks, MFJ, TenTec, and many others; not to mention the surge of roll-your-own SDR hardware and software. There’s still plenty of good will for Heathkit, if as DB says, they can act like they’re serious.

  5. I also wish that they would have been a little more open about their plans. I still have a fair amount of Heathkit stuff and was disappointed that they closed down. I remember my first road trip after I got my license was to Heathkit on Hilltop Rd, in St Joseph, MI to pick up some kits. I’d love to see them back in business, but it probably wouldn’t be anything like it was

  6. The concept of building your own gear, similar to mass-market stuff (TV sets, radios, audio components, etc.), made sense back in the days of through hole designs. The money saved in the cost of assembly labor was enough to cover a bit of extra cost in developing the manuals, and walking customers through support issues when they got stuck.

    But that’s not so true with modern SMD technology and auto pick-and-place machines. Labor costs for assembly are very low now, and when assembly is done in-house, quality assurance/testing can be done before the product is sold to the consumer, saving support costs.

    So I don’t see the glory days of Heathkit color TVs, stereo amplifiers, or other mass-market consumer goods ever returning. I’ll miss them (I helped my dad assemble a Heathkit color TV), but that market has been killed by changing technology. If it’s a product that can be purchased at your local Best Buy, then a kit version of it would be significantly more expensive, and not too many customers are willing to pay that kind of premium.

    I took the Heathkit survey back a year or so ago, when it first appeared on the net. But I was bothered by the questions they were asking, such as whether I’d prefer traditional classic Heathkits exactly as they were first sold, or products that look exactly the same on the outside, but with some updated internal designs using more modern parts. The fact that they were even thinking about bringing back the original designs indicated to me that they didn’t have a very solid business plan with a good chance of being profitable.

    I’d like to see them succeed in some way. But I think they’d have to restrict themselves to a few niche products where there’s a market of customers likely to want to build a kit and likely to have the skills to succeed in building it. Even ham radio gear is filled with SMD components, and is usually assembled with a lot of automation these days. The likes of Elecraft and TenTec still make a few radio kits, but Heathkit would almost have to start from scratch to compete with them.

    I suspect the tease of Heathkit’s resurrection was an undercapitalized dream without a solid route to profitability. I wish I were wrong.

    1. “…restrict themselves to a few niche products where there’s a market of customers likely to want to build a kit and likely to have the skills to succeed in building it…”
      Exactly. That’s kinda of the crux of the matter. There really isn’t much room for innovation and new customers in the electronics kit world, IMHO. With the likes of EvilMadScience, AdaFruit, Jameco, etc. providing kits for anything you’d like with amazing instructions and (usually) for a good price, what would they be able to innovate with? And even then, who would they sell to?
      You can bank on the Heathkit name for a while, sure, but it’s not a once-and-done kind of deal here. Perhaps they could differentiate themselves with nice enclosures?

      And with the total lack of any progress since that survey, I suspected that whatever their venture capital overlords discovered with the survey, convinced them to simply shitcan the whole thing.

      1. Don’t disregard the power of a good brand. Slap an Apple logo on it and suddenly millions of people would try to build their own phones. True story.

        Theres more room for kits, but for mass appeal the skill level needs to be right. More like putting together a PC kit than soldering borads. Modern boards on usable electronic devices theses days just are not friendly to hand soldering/assembly. Pluggable parts with configurable options and software control is where it’s at.

  7. Back in the early eighties I build several pieces of their test equipment kits. 2 – Oscilloscopes, 1 regulated test power supply, 1 function generator, and other smaller kits used for things like TV test patterns, etc. Their kits were always solid and well documented.

  8. Actually, IMHO, I think the company HEATHKIT as met its demise (unfortunately, as it should.). But, it’s BRAND, should/could live on.

    As someone above stated, they will never be able to compete with Adafruit, evilmadscientist, or etc. on a level playing field. Not anymore at least, too much time has past and these other companies have filled the void these guys left open.

    But, someone can/should purchase the brand rights and then distribute under that brand, ie Adafruits HEATHKIT POWER SUPPLY KIT, or some such. It may not be the same thing, but it will keep the history alive.

    BTW, I should point out I never really liked Heathkit, and that’s just because I could never afford them as a youth. So sue me….

    1. Yeah, but you just couldn’t beat those Heathkit manuals. There was almost no way to fail: Wonderful drawings clearly showing how it all went together, with the whole process broken down into the simplest step possible and a box by each step so you could check it off as you went. Plus supporting material telling you how it all worked, how to adjust it, how to maintain it – each kit was an electronics lesson.

      For those of you who haven’t seen a Heathkit manual, you have no idea. Where today a kit may say “solder all the resistors onto the board”, Heath had a step for each resistor, with a drawing of where it went on the board and the color code for it. Real hand-holding stuff.

      I know it would probably double the cost of an Adafruit kit to include Heathkit quality manuals, but a guy can dream.

      1. I haven’t seen a Heathkit manual. If you want to see good documentation for projects on the web and can understand Japanese go here. Unfortunately google translate doesn’t do justice and sometime add to the confusion.
        http://www.zea.jp/audio/index.html
        There are theory and the designs, BOM & part identification, how to build stuff on perf board – layout & construction, and putting it in a proper project box like a pro. Shame that it is Japanese only.

  9. Hey, person who found the Heathkit geocache here. The secret passcode was an Einstein quote about radio vs wired communication (invisible cats), and they said they’d send me something in early 2014. Never had any communication except through FB, and they haven’t replied to any of my recent messages. AMA.

  10. I’d love to see something roughly similar to Heathkit develop. Many of us don’t have the time to build Hackaday projects because collecting the parts would take too much time. I’ll love to see a business or businesses develop that offer kits to build these projects.

  11. Heathkit and Radio Shack. Two business models that no longer work. I routinely interview degreed engineers who have never picked up a soldering iron. I also have interviewed some amazing electronic technicians that would make excellent designers and engineers. Go figure. There is more to life than PSpice.

    1. I personally think it has been much better for me to start as a technician. In most of my later career I worked as an engineer even though never being formally qualified. My pay packet was much better than your run of the mill engineer could expect.

      For job applications I met the “required” skills and usually all of the “desired” skills and had many other skills that I had learnt along the way so my skill set was much broader that your average engineer.

      When I started there wasn’t any such thing as an electronics engineer. Consumer technology was very basic towards the end of the valve era (for consumers). The purpose of a technician was in design and maintenance of military technology or as support for scientists.

      As a technician you are exposed to the ways everyone else does things and there is a great deal to learnt from that. Not only can you learn from other peoples successes, even more importantly you learn from other peoples failures.

  12. If my memory serves me correctly they were bought by and subsequently a subsidiary of Schlumberger. I think Schlumberger was located in Chicago. You might want to try that path for some information.

    In the early 70’s my first HAM radio was a Heathkit HW-16. Back in the late 70s and early 80s I built a few Heathkit computer products. My first computer was their H8 with an Octal keyboard, seven segment displays and a whopping 4K of memory. I later graduated to their H89 Terminal/Computer and taught myself their version of the BASIC language.

  13. Look like you stirred the nest!

    From facebook
    https://www.facebook.com/heathcompany?fref=nf

    Our friends at Adafruit Industries have been doing some sleuthing, and we agree- it’s time for an update. Happily, there’s plenty to report.

    Exciting things are happening in the Heathkit labs. We’re pleased at the great feedback from our beta-testers on a range of quality products we’ve been actively developing. As you know, we had hoped to get several of these new products out for the Christmas market, but our team is creating so many new ideas that we’ve been slowed by the sheer work of creating patents (by law we must file them before we may sell our new products, or even advertise them). We remain hard at work, and as excited as ever to ship finished new products meeting Heathkit’s high standards.

    Meanwhile, our team has been expanding. More top-notch technical advisors and advisors have joined the effort, and hand-picked interns have been learning the ropes while earning money for their college degrees. We’ve been carefully building supply chain relationships to keep quality high and prices low, and exploring exciting partnerships that we look forward to announcing. Our soldering irons remain hot, and are being put to good use.

    We know you’re as eager as we are to see the newest Heathkit designs released. (Of course thousands of Heathkit® products are bought and sold each week– we participate in this market ourselves, and monitor it closely). For any enthusiasts not yet on our Heathkit Insider email list, that list will be the first place that new product availability is announced. Head over to the FAQ section on our official website to learn how to join the mailing list and also to read the answers to Adafruit’s questions about Heathkit intellectual property. We look forward to building out this FAQ section as more information becomes public.

    It’s been an enormous amount of hard work, but our team has risen to the task. You can be confident that as true Heathkit devotees ourselves, we want nothing more than to honor the legendary name that’s graced workbenches and homes for generations. We look forward to providing more news soon.

    Until next time,
    The Heathkit Team

    http://www.adafruit.com/…/heathkit-the-electronic-history-…/

    1. Hmm, patents. Looks like their business model is as old as the name. It seems doubtful that they are going to embrace the open hardware movement. Can’t see them doing very well when the likes of Adafruit have made big inroads.

    2. Yes, closed products encumbered by patents are exactly what makers are looking for these days ;)

      Of course, this “Heathkit” is nothing to do with the original Heathkit. The ironic thing is that while they are wrapping their own products in exclusive tape, they are shall we say, “borrowing” a respected brand that /someone else/ spent a lot of hard work creating.

  14. I loved Heathkit. My first Oscilloscope was a Heathkit and I learned a great deal by building it. I gave it to a budding electrical engineer many years ago. The instruction books were always detailed and informative, and a real learning experience.

  15. I could see a market for assemble it yourself modular test equipment. Have the upgrades be real upgrades instead of the lame-o way some of late have been where all the hardware is identical, with some features disabled by software or not installing a wire or a diode.

    I could see a win for Heathkit and the customer. Heathkit doesn’t spend money on components going into lower profit units where they won’t be used. The customers get to buy exactly what they want, and have the ability to add stuff or upgrade without having to buy a whole new piece of equipment.

    Some high end scopes and other test equipment used to be modular, but the modules each had their own physical controls and often a complete enclosure. A modern version could use a computer style expansion bus and a touch screen with a core system that the software on each module “plugs” into and is automatically available.

    Oh, wait. Already been done circa 1977! That’s how the TI-99/4 and TI-99/4A computer expansion hardware worked, except without the touch screen. The firmware in the computer didn’t need to know a thing about any peripheral not built into the console. The software for each peripheral was on a ROM chip in the peripheral and provided one of more calls and commands to the core system. For example, there was no code in the console for disk operations. But with the disk controller in the expansion box, the commands OLD, SAVE and more were available.

    It was a neat and clean system, never required hunting for a driver. TI had it just works and plug-n-play long before Apple or Microsoft claimed that’s how their systems were supposed to function.

  16. Two completely crazy and not necessarily related issues. It happens I learned CP/M-80 on a H89 system which I helped add a second serial port to. Second I saw two of the M6800 trainers that the company made for teaching us computers and things of that ilk, These were sitting on a table at the VCF last summer in the buy/sell/trade room which is where we met, (Hack A Day and myself.)

    1. My dad used to work at Heathkit, I grew up on Heathkit, I have built
      several Heathkits. “adafruit” wasn’t even born when I was building
      the numerous kits dad would bring home.

      She doesn’t even remotely deserve to bask in the tradition and
      legacy of the name Heathkit. Like a soldier having to salute the
      current CIC … leaves a bad taste just thinking about it.

  17. If you want to know anything about HEATHKIT and any evolutionary news contact:

    Don Peterson
    c/o Data Professionals
    7172 Regional Street
    PMB 268
    Dublin, CA 94568
    Phone: 925-548-6404
    Email: Sales@D8aPro.com

    Can can also help you find manuals and old parts from his personal “bone yard” of Heathkit stuff. I also use to wok for them during their Schlumberger and Zenith days.

    1. Ugggh… Don Peterson and his “I bought repro rights to the manuals, so I therefore own the copyrights to them”… nonsense.

      Wasn’t aware he had a parts stash, I’d just been avoiding him due to the “copyright chaos” he was responsible for creating (his claim has no teeth, but even paper tigers roar).

      interesting.

      1. Yup, that’s too bad. I’ve seen this with other hobby level electronics documentation. In one case, where someone (an engineer) tried to put their name on documentation, the real owner was approached and he released the whole lot of documentation with the provision that it was shared and reproduced at no cost (so no reselling allowed) and would have a copyright statement indicating those terms. It worked out well in that case and made it easily available.

  18. There’s a lot of talk about this business model. I see an opportunity here for HAD. Kits would plug right into HAD’s current business model with the store, targeted advertising (Kit buyers fit right in with HAD’s visitor base / advertisers) and HAD has the supplier connections to make it happen.

    HAD could add a link in the projects HAD.io to “pre-submit as kit”. I would recommend that kits could be submitted before fully documented or refined because if someone goes to all this trouble first and their project is not viable (for whatever reason) then they would be discouraged from putting in so much effort on a subsequent project. After a pre-submit and if the kit is considered viable then HAD could offer guidance to the level of completion necessary. ie – you need better quality pictures for “x” and you need more accurate documentation.

    I am working on a project that I want to be easily replicated in the home / hobby environment. One of the biggest problems I foresee is that low pin density chips (that are easily soldered) are ONLY available in large order quantities that are beyond my personal finances.

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