It is with sadness that we note the passing of John Birkett, proprietor of the legendary eponymous surplus radio and electronics store on an unassuming street in the British city of Lincoln, at the age of 93. He has been a fantastic source of esoteric parts and electronic assemblies for many decades, and though many of you from beyond where this is being written may never have heard of him the chances are that if you follow electronics enthusiasts from the UK you will have unwittingly seen parts which passed through his hands.
There was a time when surplus stores were a relatively common sight, given their window of opportunity by the huge quantity of post-war and Cold War military gear at knock-down prices. My town had one when I was a kid, but though it sold its share of electronic goodies it was more of a place for sturdy olive green outdoor wear or all the 1930s British military uniform items you might ever need. J. Birkett was different, as a purely electronics store the shop rapidly became the go-to place for both the most necessary and the most unexpected of parts.
His motto was “Not a piece of junk in sight”, and though as with much surplus equipment there is plenty of junk to be found it was his eye in managing to stock the junk which was most interesting and useful that made his selection special. Such was its reach that most of his customers including me never made it to Lincoln and the store itself, instead we came to him through his mail-order business and attendance at radio rallies. I fondly remember the anticipation of receiving a Birkett parcel, and I still have plenty of parts that came from him. An FM tuner converted for use as a 2 meter receiver is still in a box somewhere, and I’m pretty certain my storage unit still holds a pair of Pye Cambridge VHF transceivers he supplied.
According to Google the shop remains open, and we hope that state of affairs will continue. Surplus may not be what it once was, but we thank John Birkett for what he gave to generations of British hardware hackers. May he rest in peace.
Header image: Oliver Mills, (CC BY-SA 2.0).
42 thoughts on “RIP John Birkett, Parts Vendor Extraordinaire”
Whilst I only visited Birkett’s once (on holiday with my family) back in the mid 1980’s my own home town of Cardiff, South Wales in the U.K. had a similar shop – Charlie Marks in the Wyndham Arcade. Whilst Marks did sell some new components he also had vast amounts of old electronic fruit machine boards for sale, an amazing source of cheap resistors and 74 series logic chips for a school kid on a pocket money budget, and many of his “display cabinet” fronts were recycled front facias from these machines – clear glass once the graphics and bulb assemblies had been removed.
I was so fortunate to live in a city where we had not one but two electronic component shops (the afore mentioned Marks, and also Steve’s Electronics in the Castle Arcade), and later a third when Maplin arrived on the high street – sadly all three now long gone. Different times, and one that allowed the hobby enthusiast to have a one to one discussion with the proprietor who was an enthusiast themselves, long before the internet and Amazon/eBay that offer similar supply and discussion opportunities today.
The next time I’m “up north” I’ll be sure to pop by.
I remember Charlie Marks store and the large fruit machine PCB’s. That place was the source of most of my early electronics adventures and was a regular place to visit when my parent went to Cardiff. We lived at the time up in the valleys and a trip to Cardiff was very special. I miss these places and very much enjoyed the pot-luck of what you found.
What’s a fruit machine/fruit machine board? (Other side of the pond here.)
Knew John from 1968 shortly after moving to Linconl. Worked at AEI unt 1992, and always visited JBs for the very odd extra component to aid my testing of power semiconductors at work. Alway visited the shop as I continurd my passion for electronics. Now doing embedded micros in home based project. A fine gentleman and will never be forgotten
On a similar note, I’m sure some of you who either live in the surrounding area of Cambridge, or have had the occasion to visit will remember H. Gee on Mill Road in the city.
The store was severely damaged in a fire, and never returned from the ashes. A true loss for the makers of Cambridge and the locality.
I live not to far away from the shop. I have visited it many times over the years. Many a child over the years has entered the shop. Only to return years later as a radio ham with their own children or grandchildren. I hope the family keep the shop running. you enter with your shopping list for your project, bc108,bc109,2n3055, vero board. Only to spot an item and instantly think what can i make with that. This is where people how have the knack (dilbert) go to be inspired.
Johns callsign is G8OPP
G8OPP de M1CDQ Rest in peace
Our Elmer, who art in radio heaven,
Hallowed by thy constant wave.
Thy propagation come.
Thy will be done in the shack as it is in the manual.
Give us this day our daily Sproradic E.
And forgive us our pills politics and prostate nets,
as we forgive those who transmit over us.
And lead us not into deregulation,
but deliver us from lids.
For thine is the electro and the magnetic,
and the radio frequency, for ever and ever.
And Luckily we have [Jenny List] other wise people like me in Australia would never hear of [John Birkett].
At 93 he must have made an absolutely huge contribution. Condolences to his family.
Here in Australia we had “Dick Smith” (still alive and kicking) who started Disk Smith Electronic which became the largest shopping chain where you could go but a quarter watt resistor and some transistors. We even had Tandy or Radio Shack for a while to.
Later we had [Don McKenzie] who started https://www.dontronics.com/ and as far as I can remember was the beginning of the “BASIC Stamp” which was a PIC micro-controller that ran some form of BASIC and was the last generations Arduino.
His storey is at the link above.
There have been some truly remarkable people who have made absolutely huge contributions. Thankfully now we even learn of the females that were not fully acknowledged in their time of had their works attributed to a man.
We still have Rockby (and they have a surplus section [including a now 2000’s era website – it was until recently 90’s]) which is at the site of what once was Rod Irving. Lest we remember All Electronic Components and most importantly Rite Buy Trading Co where all sorts of interesting bits could be found.
Ahh, Rockby Electronics, among the last of a byegone age…I still get stuff from them (despite their ancient website – it works and does not require Web 3 doo-dads!) Altronics and Jaycar are still going but very retail nowadays.
Strangely, we have Dick Smith branded stuff turning up in the surplus aisle at the Princess Auto stores here in Canada. Mostly it’s USB cables and phone accessory tat though. Though there were some Velleman kits that may have come by the same route.
I first met John when I was a 14 year old schoolboy in the ’70s. Me and my mate would regularly take the 20 mile bus journey to gaze in John’s window and rave through his boxes of FT171B Xtals looking for values we could tweak with toothpaste or valve grinding paste. He would always make time for you and was very encouraging. When I got my ticket 10 or so years later, I would see him at Lincoln hamfest and he always had time for a chat. The last time I spoke to him, he was having trouble with his eyes which were preventing him keeping his hours up to hang on to his pilot’s license, but that was probably 20 years ago now: Time seems to rush by faster each day. John will be fondly remembered by all that knew him or had dealing with him. RIP.
I went to university in Lincoln and would stop to peer in the windows every time I went past. It was an endless novelty. While I never met John, it makes me smile to hear how popular the shop was over many years. I hope it’s still there the next time I’m passing through.
Regrettably the shop is shut and has been for some time.
I was not aware of the gentleman but I passed his shop when in Lincoln and my wife had to forcible take my wallets as I tried to decide between a Hunters altimeter or a Vulcan’s gyro. A fantastic shop and another one of those quirky corners you find in a sea of mediocrity
I have one of Johnny B’s Vulcan altimeter in pride of place, and it has much more about it now I’ve learnt of his passing. It is a constant reminder of the state of the weather, and of great memories of being in his shop, and buying more items and cables and connectors than I care to remember since my first introduction to his shop in the early 1980’s. A great man, sorely missed. RIP JB
Sad day indeed. I was only recently looking at the Strait on streetview and was surprised to see the shop still there… when I was growing up it was a cornucopia of electronic surplus as well as my go to for components of all kinds. It’s a shame the pictured ad is so late, when JB used to type them he wore out the @ key, it gave them a very distinctive look in the magazines!
I used to live just around the corner from his shop, and walked past every day to and from work.
In the summer you would walk past the open door just to see John sat there surrounded by a what most would think was a pile of rubbish, but to him, and a selection of very passionate people, that would be an absolute treasure.
I remember buying a few resistors and switches from him, and he seemed almost annoyed I was even disturbing him for such insignificant parts. Sometimes he would be in his show deeply engaged into a conversation about some plane instruments or radio parts, and that is clearly where his passion was.
I loved watching the turists walking past and just stop and look at these magnificent instruments that used to be in a plane, just like it was a museum.
Sadly I don’t believe his daughter will continue the business, but hope that someone with just as much passion as John will take it over.
A very sad loss.
Will have to save up my shorted tantalums to give him a salute.
Shocked I never knew it was there, as my grandparents were from there, so relatively frequent visits to the city but other than a particularly good RC and model train shop (no idea what it is/was called, but I could easily go back there) the place didn’t seem to have any other greatly interesting shops. Feels like I missed I out, always a shame when the old guard pass on, hopefully the legacy of interesting oddities in the store will survive it.
The model shop of choice when I was growing up was Nobbs, though it sold a lot of other stuff and was my supplier of chemicals and glassware as well as modelling supplied. I don’t know if that was the one you are thinking of but, if so, I am sad to say that that entire area is gone. The Road down to the old market is still there but those along the frontage disappeard when the new bus station was being developed. The model shop that was on the Strait was not there when I when I was growing up, there was a bic-a-brac shop and a shop sold a variety of weird and wondeful musical instruments, though there was a prepondrrance of ancient accordions (in fact, my first one came from there).
I always used to go and browse JB’s when I went to use the Lincoln Camera Club’s darkroom – I see from Streetview that the building that housed that is no longer extant. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, I left the city for good in the late 70s.
Hobby shops were common here in the sixties. Even the department store had a lot of that stuff as an adjunct to the toy department. But getti g into electronics veered me away. It was much later that I went back to hobby shops getting brass tubing and other interesting things.
And now most are gone, or morphed into glorified toy stores.
Nobbs sounds familiar, but I can’t say for sure either way, might just be the place my parents or grandfather talked of.
My Grandparents died quite a few years ago now, and I didn’t manage to visit the city much in their latter years anyway, so I expect the whole place is rather different, probably all changed to coffee shops, now closed thanks to the pandemic, except the the old cobbled streets around the cathedral and the big hill, expect those bits haven’t changed much..
I well remember the Charlie Marks store in Newport, bunking off school and a 25 mile cycle ride to go and buy essential components! About 5 years ago I bought a ferrite rod (proper, old school Plessey part NoS!) from ebay, and when I looked at the delivery paperwork, realised there’s a good chance it came from the same box I was buying them from more than 30 years previously. (And also, that the ferrite rod is probably older than me!)
It sounds like a place where I would have spent too much (time, money).
May he rest in peace!
Very sad news. Through all the years I went in, John’s looks never seem to change (unlike me and not in a good way). I could never walk passed the shop without taking a peek, even at night or for a real challenge when the windows were heavily condensated. I have a HF tuner of yours I see every day. Like many I’m sure, I would have always liked a behind the scenes tour. Rest in peace John, a well deserved break. May your legacy continue. You will be sadly missed by so many. Mark Briggs.
It’s sad that the supplies are losing to e-shops. We lost GES Electronic shops here in Czech republic, GME is still working, but closing more and more stores.
I lived in Sleaford in the 50’s and 60’s. I used to bike to Lincoln to gaze in the window of Birkett’s and (occasionally) buy bits of surplus Lancaster. In the 70’s I bought bags of 74TTL logic chips and spent many happy hours sorting out the ones that worked and, in the process, learned logic the practical way. I have visited the shop many many times and its woven into my hobby in electronics. Never went in without a nod from John sat in the corner. Thank you John and RIP. God Bless
We had our share of local surplus and new component suppliers in the USA too. But from the article I would have loved to have stopped by Mr. Birkett’s shop!
In Huntsville AL we were fortunate enough to have three great suppliers – and the last one, Mock Electronics closed in 2013. We also had a national chain called Radio Shack. And although they were never a surplus shop, they kept a decent supply of basic components in stock as they remade themselves over and over again through the years.
Now the best place in the USA to shop surplus electronics is https://www.allelectronics.com/ in California.
OMG! What sad news, although I had forgotten of the name until I read this headline, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m sure I’ve bought stuff from him in the 1980 and 90s at radio rallies.
I’ve been to his shop many times and I can say with confidence. There was no junk. I was like a kid in a sweet shop.
I lived less than 5 minutes from J. Birkett sadly before my interest in making and electronics, but with a Tornado F3 navigator for a dad, I always enjoyed looking in the window at the gauges.
I was there just a couple months ago visiting family and had a look inside. Imagine my surprise seeing it on Hackaday!
I remember my mum taking me in as a kid off maybe 10 (1984) or younger, and after a few years off me constantly comming in and buying odds and sods with my pocket money he offered me a Saturday job. But he wanted to talk to my mum before I could start, I got £10 a day which was a lot of money from my 50p pocket money and quite often fish and chips thrown in. I would work most off the summer holidays there packing mixed bags off resistors, moving truck loads off surplus equipment (and I mean truck loads!). Even worked there full time after I left school, I was there till 2004. He was a good freind and mentor and taught me a huge amount. I used to see him nearly every month but it was covid that stopped that, and without the interaction of customer he went downhill. When I started the haydays of surplus had been and gone, I listened to the tales off half the street covered in valve radio’s and parts. But John still bought surplus component from the likes of Marconi so would have rare components that where out of spec for military, but more than good enough for radio hams. He bought from the likes of British Telecom, interestingly one devision hadn’t told another. And new still in service equipment costing thousands was sold a scrap and left under a tree covered by a tarp till they bought it back. I have so many fun stories, its sad that kids don’t have that kind of thing available now where they could rumage thru a pile of surplus dreaming off what they could use it for.
R.I.P John your freind Matt
Hi Matt. Like you I was a regular Saturday visitor to the shop with my pocket money, and I remember you well from when you started working there. I guess I drifted away in later years, although I did have one memorable chat with John lamenting the good old days of hobby electronics. It says a lot that you stayed in touch and offered friendship. My first thoughts were with John’s family and friends when I heard the news.
Buying ‘stuff’ from John and turning it into other ‘stuff’ shaped my teenaged brain, and although never directly useful, led to a career of fixing things, processes and sometimes people. He has, and will always have my respect. Thank you for being his friend.
Just found this today after visiting the closed shop. This is a real shame and a loss to the electronics / ham radio communities. My thoughts are with his family.
As the aforementioned Wood & Douglas on the advert, we had a very close relationship with John as he represented our products both at the shop and at rallies. In return we used to buy bulk bags of parts from him to sift and test to include in our early amateur radio kits. If we were at the same event I used to look forward to chatting with him and hearing his history in the RAF etc. Really nice guy, one of the best.
I first found out about John Birkett in the 1960s, when his shop was still half-way up Steep Hill and he was running it with his wife. My dad took me there, and I bought a handful (literally) of surplus transistors for 6d, grabbed from a large box on the floor, and then lovingly individually tested at home to find the ones that worked. Like so many, I visited many times after that, cycling 30 miles there and then back again to buy a few resistors or another handful of surplus transistors. My biggest prize was an ’88 set which was too big to take back on the bicycle, so I balanced it on the saddle to Lincoln railway station and took the train to Sleaford where my dad picked me up. I think John rang him to say where I would be. I last saw John in 2012 when I happened to be in Lincoln on business and – on the off chance – went to the shop. I was stunned:- there he was, sharp as a tack, and with alacrity sold me some variable capacitors that take pride of place on my bench. A great man, a great shop, both of which were a fantastic inspiration and helped lead me to a great career and a life full of interest and fascination in what is possible. RIP John and Thank you.
I was a schoolboy in the early 90’s and am a lifelong Lincoln resident, my friends and I would often drop into ‘Johnny Birkett’s’ to buy bits and bobs for our projects, mostly components that we thought would be good for model aircraft. It was and still is a fascinating shop and John was a well known character to us all, usually sitting behind the counter quietly and offering useful tidbits of information and ideas. He seemed ancient to us back then, as all people over fifty do to schoolboys! We viewed him like some kind of technical wizard. Not only was he an electronics genius but he was also a very savvy businessman, buying up a few properties on the Strait, the lower portion of Steep Hill, and keeping them out of the hands of the larger conglomerates which own much of Lincoln’s commercial properties and charge extortionate rents. This policy has driven many of Lincoln’s smaller, more specialist retailers out of business and properties have been left shuttered and decaying. I found this page following a Google search and was sorry to hear that John had passed away. He was a well known and well liked figure in the city. I hope that his business continues to flourish and is maintained in his memory, he deserves that. He had a long life and he spent it well, RIP John, you’ll be much missed.
Fond memories of the incomparable Johnny Birkett. As a newly arrived electronics tech at Scampton in the mid ’70s, his name soon came to my notice. I then started to see him at Wickenby airfield, where we were both private pilots. John loved their Cessna 172 so much that he bought it, and was always flying off to rallies and fairs around the country. He was of course an avid acquirer of ex-MOD electronics gear. There was perhaps a not apocryphal tale of him acquiring some kit that the MOD later realised that actually still needed, and had to buy back at a much greater price than they had sold it for. In later years, I again heard of him holding court in the shop. I’m amazed that only now do I hear of his passing, with regret but admiration of a character all too infrequently met. RIP Johnny.
I met John in the late 60’s, via a friend and colleague of Otley Radio Society. Every month it was a lottery of who would sit in the rear seats of my friends Morris minor for the long trek to Lincoln. Occasionally it was my turn. Arrive in Lincoln about lunch time, lunch then up to Steep Hill. Always a look in the shop window, then inside. ALWAYS a friendly greeting, cos John knew we were “spenders”. After a couple of hours we would depart with a boot full of “Birkett bangers” 5 bob bags of surplus transistors and diodes, all unmarked, from the AEI Factory. Tea chests of all the devices, in the back, hand full of this and that. Eventually we were allowed to privately visit in a sunday “shhhhh”. Where we had “free reign” of the back yard and the barn over the road, where the ex cold war stuff was. Over the years the visits would be less and less as the car driver “passed”, but when ever I called it was as though I had never left. Later John would attend the NARMS radio rally, plus others. I Last visited pre “covid”, where his eyesight was failing, but as soon as he heard my voice, his face lit up, and back we would go to the “old days”. Today I found out that John had passed in April, while chatting to a friend. RIP John. NEVER Forgotten.
I went to work for John when I left school in the late 1960’s. It was a fantastic place to work when your were 16 and stupidly obsessed with electronics. At the time he was buying huge numbers of both radio valves and IC’s, and i spent many months in the upstairs room at the front above number 25, building specific bits of kit to test the piles of ICs’ transistors, diodes and valves. One well used kit was the 74 series logic chip tester we built. In on of the back room we had a long bench set up where we would put many boxes of parts and then go along with a resealable bag, making up components Lucky bags. Most people have no idea of the actual size of the place it went up three floors, across two buildings, 25 and 26, and the property went back 100 yards in outbuildings, plas there was the Hi Fi shop across the road and the building further up the hill he lived in, all jam packed with components. I recall the Winter of Discontent, we made 12 volt inverters driving a fluorescent tube, using a 2n3055 power transistor, we sold hundreds of them at about two quid each.
More stories please @OldFart!
Why the lamp build? (I’m from over the pond and and not aware of the Winter of Discontent.
I remeber he bought a skip full of untested IC’s, Transistors and diodes one day, there was literally millions of devices in the skip, we recruited a small army of schoolboys who sorted through the skip over a number of days. Ive never seen so many devices as i did that day. Ther was other intersting bits in the skip, which was all from the Marconi works at the far end of Carholme Road , now long gone, and had switched from making valves to semicondutors, i found a whoel slice of silicon, a 8 inch disc of shiny silicon with circuits etched on it, it was fascinating.
You wouldnt believe the stuff in those buildings. Every square inch of floor spaces was occupied with piles of boxes, including the stairs, and the Fire Service ordered the stairs to be cleared at one stage. They soon clogged up again. John was always short of storage space.
The most intersting stuff was on the top floor, which was full of radio valves some prewar, and downthe bottom of the long garden was a stack of H2S radar devices, from Lancaster bombers, the MoD actually pulled a dirty trick on John, they sold him about 20 sets then slapped a D Notice, an official Secrets notice on them, which meant he couldnt sell them nor could he dismantel them, so they stayed outside stcked up in the rain for several decades.
The Winter of Discontent as a period inthe early 1970’s when the Miners Union decided to try and bring down the conservative Heath Government by striking, starving the Coal power stations of coal and creating power cuts. Now there was a guy whos name i forget, he was high up in the Medcial Physics Department of the County Hospital, he had carte blance from John to wander round the shop and take whever he wanted, because he would come back with all sorts of interesting circuits using the devices John bought, everything from touch sensitive lights, light dispalys, sound truggers, proximity switches, all sorts of stuff. We could then copy these inventions and sell them as kits. It was this guy who came up witht he circuit , a type of oscillator using two 2N3055 power transistors driving a mains transformed backwards to light a 40w fluorescent tube.
We also started making disco light displays, using 74 series logic and chips like the CD4017, makign ring counters and sound tio light devices. we were in fact years ahead of the later big producer iof such devices, Pulsar Light of Cambridge.
I just had another memory, the day we learned about inductive heating! Me were clearing out a back room ready for a delivery, it was the middle of winter , ther was snow outside, and the room had no power other than a light. We fecthed a 100m coil of insulated 3 core cable, unwound enough to reach a power socket in another room, put a pulg on then found the other end on the inner of the coil, and put a socket and a plugged in a fan heater, luxury. It wasnt until we wer packign up for the day we found the coil had, of course acted like an induction heater and the whole expnesice 100 metre reel of cable had softened and melted together into solid lump of plastic insulation and 14 gauge wire!
John didnt just sell components, he sought out ways to use components to make kits and devices to sell. he was never short of ideas how to make money from electronic components.
Can I also mention another memory, i remember a guy called, i think Joe Rose, he was a Ham Radio fanatic and also Ham TV, as well as Slow scan TV, and as I recall he bought an entire surplus BBC Outside Broadcast Unit, replete with 4 or 5 TV cameras and a two inch video tape deck.. He was a close friend of Johns.
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