TV Repair By Mail

I don’t think there was ever a correspondence school called the “Close Cover Before Striking School” but since book matches — which used to be a thing when most people smoked — always had that text on them anyway perhaps there should have been. There was a time when electronic magazines, billboards, and even book matches were constantly bombarding us with ads to have a career in electronics. Or computers. Or TV repair. So while we think of distance learning as a new idea, really it is just the evolution of these old correspondence schools which date back quite some time.

How far exactly? Hard to say. There’s evidence of some distance learning going back as far as 1728. In 1837, there was a correspondence course to learn shorthand. By 1858, the University of London started its external program for correspondence work and the University of Chicago had a home study division in 1892.  Radio was an early choice of topic, too. In the United States, the United Wireless Telegraph company started a training school — later the Marconi Institute — in 1909. However, it is doubtful that there was any correspondence training going on there until much later.

NRI or National Radio Institute was doing correspondence classes from around 1914. Philo Farnsworth completed an NRI course in radio servicing while in college. There are some older schools, too. ICS — International Correspondence Schools — started in 1890 and still operates as the Penn Foster Career School. DeVry, founded in 1931, is still around as is the Cleveland Institute of Electronics, which has been around since 1934. Of course, many of these changed business models over the years. Some, like National Technical Schools, didn’t make enough changes and went out of business.

Their heyday, though, was the post-World War II days. Veterans were anxious to spend Uncle Sam’s money to get a new career, and many had been trained or exposed to electronics in the service. TV was exploding, too, which further stimulated demand. Thumb through an electronics magazine from those days and you’ll find plenty of ads for these schools.

Today online training is the new correspondence class, but you don’t see much radio and electronics training like this these days. Sure, you can earn an entire EE degree online, but can you learn how to fix a radio?

Marketing

Work in clean conditions! From a 1920’s NRI course

There’s an old saying in advertising: Don’t sell steak, sell sizzle. These correspondence courses generally targeted people of modest circumstances, out of work or working a dead-end job who wanted to better themselves. Many hinted that more education was the key to being promoted at work, or that you could make money in your own business. One of NRI’s courses from 1924 starts with an image. Note that these men are not outside working in the elements which is a major inducement if you are spending your days working in the sun and the rain. An NRI promotional booklet reports, “Many radio experts make $40, $60, $75 a week and more.” Pretty good money in 1935.

As you might expect, the ads overwhelmingly targeted men. Ads ran in electronics magazines, but also in other kinds of magazines the target audience might read about science, mechanics, and other related fields. The ads mostly promised the ability to make money, find a job, start a business, or get a promotion.

Evolution

The early course, like the one that included the above picture, were really just electronics books that had quizzes they would grade for you. These were very much like any other electronics book you’ve ever seen. They describe components, schematics, what makes a circuit, Ohm’s law, power calculations. The questions were answered free form and — in this course, at least — didn’t require any higher math. For example, “Name five insulating materials.” and “What is a kilowatt?”

Obviously, there are things we don’t think about too much but were important at the time like spark gaps and motor-generators. Overall, you could probably have found any basic book in your library and done the same thing except they wouldn’t give you a certificate (and if you scored over 90%, you’d be an “honors man.”

By 1938, at least, there was a realization that you needed more hand-on training. The Radio Servicing Course from Radio Technical Institute included a Knight Kit receiver from Allied Radio. The regenerative receiver used two 30 tubes. In fact, large chunks of the course came from suppliers like the “Supreme Instruments Corporation of Greenwood, Mississippi.” Presumably, you could buy their oscilloscope and other tools covered in the course.

It also became common to teach a bit of the “the business” in these classes. For example, RTI suggests:

The new profitable field of installing additional extra speakers is open to all servicemen. This type of convenience is wanted by practically all radio owners and should be suggested
on every radio repair call. Most homes have only one radio, in a single room of the house. To hear radio programs in other sectons this radio must be played at volume levels that prove nervewracking to all close to the radio and annoys the neighbors due to the loudness.

A CIE ad shows someone learning digital electronics on a Heathkit trainer

While these courses were little more than books with graded tests, there were some serious training materials produced by NRI. As early as 1930 they had a 1600-page course that covered quite a bit of theory and practice. There was even a unit on “radio prospecting” which we might think of today as using metal detectors.

After World War II, soldiers had “GI Bill” money to spend on education and these companies were ready to take it. Radios were more complex than ever and TV also drove demand for people who could install and service electronics. Later, much later, computers were also a consumer item and training companies offered some instruction in basic computer servicing, too.

Kits and Bargains

Kits and equipment turned out to be the big differentiator in classes and the companies often used Heathkit so the student built their own equipment including, often, some form of TV. NRI was known to produce its own kits under either its own name or the Conar labels.

For example, a CIE class offered a 5 MHz Heathkit oscilloscope, a 19-inch TV, and a color bar generator. NTS had a similar offering, or you could learn about computers with a Heathkit H8. The NTS ad below from 1977 shows quite a haul of stuff, including a 315 square-inch TV! Keep in mind that a CRT that is 18 inches square has 324 square inches and we would call a 25″ TV.

Lots of equipment and toys for this NTS class

Many times, kits used components left over from other experiments or were themselves experiments. For example, during construction, you might be instructed to leave out a component and demonstrate the effect it had.

There was one bargain basement educational program that advertised quite a bit. Edu-Kit offered a practical home radio course for under $30. This included tools and a soldering iron. The course claimed to have you build twelve receivers, three transmitters, a square wave generator, an amplifier, a signal tracer, a signal injector, and a code oscillator. Of course, the trick is, you probably weren’t able to keep them all assembled at the same time or they had multiple purposes. After all, a square wave generator is a signal injector and when connected to a signal tracer/amplifier, would give you a code practice oscillator.

Cost

Outside of the Edu-Kit, I never found the price of any of these courses. Presumably, the ones with all the kits would have cost quite a bit, especially in adjusted dollars. However, reading between the lines in some of the ads and promotional material, it seems like many of these schools let you pay in installments. Presumably, you’d pay some, get some materials, and then pay some more to get the rest.

Aftermath

Where are these schools now? They still exist, some of them even the same companies. It seems, though, that paradoxically, these distance learning pioneers have become more traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Maybe the death of readily-available kits can be blamed. After all, you could easily deliver coursework via the Internet and collect assignments the same way. It is harder to do the kits, but some of the virtual labs we’ve seen on EdX are pretty impressive.

Of course, the service business isn’t what it used to be either. When you can go to the big box store and replace a bad TV with a much better one for a fairly cheap price, how much will you pay to have it repaired? The economics of repair don’t work well when things get cheaper and better rapidly.

Part of the issue with these schools — particularly the ones that took Federal money for the GI bill or student loans — is that there was a lot of potential for abuse of the system. In 1951, for example, 1,677,000 veterans attended “for profit” schools, yet only 20% of them completed their studies. Many would sign up, get a TV as part of the course, and then drop out. The government tried to crack down without much success. A 1972 GAO report found that 75% of veterans did not complete correspondence courses. By 1992, the government finally took steps to reduce the flow of money available to these schools.

So it wasn’t just one thing that caused these schools to change or perish. It was everything. While I probably wouldn’t spend a few thousand on some books and Heathkits, I would sure plunk down $30 to build 20 radio circuits at home. It feels like the end of this era took something with it.

47 thoughts on “TV Repair By Mail

  1. Can somebody explain the “Close Cover Before Striking School” thing for me?

    I do get the reference to matches (closing the cover before striking a match avoids setting the whole thing on fire, hence the warning was printed in every book of matches). But what has that to do with remote education and schools in general?

    1. Back when smoking was ubiquitous and free matches were a thing, the inside of the matchbook cover would have often have advertising as well as the words “close cover before striking”. i.e. Advertising powered the economy and people had to be warned about not doing stupid things. Not much has changed.

      1. I’ve always wondered about that. Advertising serves the purpose of informing consumers what products are available to facilitate competition, but when a handful of big corporations buy all the spots for advertising to eclipse their competitors, and turn to psychological manipulation to undermine rational informed choice, the whole idea turns on its head by obscuring the availability of other products. It starts to retard the economy and wastes money on the effort to advertise.

        The only party that advertising actually helps seems to be the advertising agencies, whose job then isn’t to convince or inform consumers to buy products, but to make their primary customers the corporations believe that advertising works and is necessary.

    2. If memory serves, Don Imus used to do a skit as “The Right Reverend Billy Sol Hargis and the First Church of the Gooey Death and Drive-In Religion” wherein he claimed to have attended the “Close Cover Before Striking School of Ministry and Heavy Machinery.” :-)

  2. I believe it’s just an attempt to join the long history of match-book advertising and the similarly long history of correspondence schools. Like you would see “Close cover before striking” on the matchbook, but right below it would be “School for TV Repairmen.” If you hold it just right and the match-heads obscure the last part of it, you get the result in question.
    I am not aware of anyone having accused Mr. Williams of being famous for his dad-jokes… :D

    1. My pop-tronics zine subscription list must have been shared with CIE. A rep showed up back in ’71 pitching to my mom. When I got home I heard the story, she said he’s going to Purdue. Sorry. Sierra Oscar Lima.

  3. The great armies of radio and car repair people were only necessary because we were ignorant of the concept of “statistical quality control” as practiced on the factory assembly line. Lots and lots of broken junk went out to consumers and needed to be fixed. Now we constantly tweak our assembly lines to reduce the number of defects. Armies are too expensive.

    https://www.qad.com/blog/2017/10/dr-w-edwards-deming-hero-quality#:~:text=By%20the%201930s%2C%20Deming%20became,production%20and%20eliminate%20future%20defects.

    1. I think you oversimplify.

      People used to care for and maintain their property. Electronics was expensive. It was worth fixing and somebody had to do that work. Pasted inside the cabinet of virtually every radio or TV of that era was a schematic… or at least a tube call-out.

      The world is very different now. Very little consumer electronics is fixed… broken items are simply thrown away. Worse, you couldn’t get the schematics or parts even if you wanted to fix it.

      Not only that, we’ve had a cultural shift where we not only throw away broken things , we actually discard perfectly GOOD things simply because the manufacturer has released a newer model and incremented the model number. This is why we find it acceptable to glue batteries permanently into the housings of 600-dollar cellphones. (Please-spare me the “removable batteries compromises the integrity of the phone and makes it difficult to maintain water-tightness…” As an engineer I call bullsh*t on that one. It’s like selling a new car with a full tank of gas and welding the gas cap on.

      As to Deming and quality control, you’ve obviously never shopped at Harbor Freight. On the consumer electronics side, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a brand-new DVD player, receiver, or TV remote die…just out of warranty… and I restored it to service by re-flowing the solder joints with good o’le lead.

      I’m not a fan of government tampering in the free market, let alone taxes for the purpose of behavior modification, but I would be sympathetic to a surcharge on all non-repairable goods. Manufacturers should play a penalty for selling consumer products that purposefully discourage dismantling and repair/maintenance.

      In addition, there could be a surcharge on all consumer appliances and electronics sold, for which the manufacturer will not or cannot provide a schematic and a source of spare parts.

      No technical documentation and no parts?… then that item is by definition disposable…basically no different than a plastic straw from McDonalds, except that it costs way more and lasts a little longer.

  4. “By 1992, the government finally took steps to reduce the flow of money available to these schools.”

    Yea, now they just get what they can of your GIB and supplement that with a huge FAFSA loan, which is even more terrible. Progress.

    1. I took master course in color television servicing from NRI for 3 years starting March 1975. Was my plan B in case railroading petered out which it never did. Will never regret taking the course. Built 25 in. color TV, 5 in. scope, signal generator, cross hatch generator, TVOM, tube and transistor radio receivers, and tube tester. Also bought and built Heathkit sweep/marker generator to align the TV. Still have all except TV – tuned circuits pre-aligned don’t lend themselves to strong reception so had a snowy picture even after re-aligning. Course was $1200.00 and paid NRI $40.00 per month. Have used knowledge gained my entire adult life. Still have all lessons and tests too.

  5. “Overall, you could probably have found any basic book in your library and done the same thing except they wouldn’t give you a certificate”

    Today we have the Internet. And universities put their course lists, sometimes even syllabi up on display.
    A very dedicated high school graduate with a whole lot of willpower to continue could take some years off between High School and College, learn everything they need to know for their classes. At that point all they would need the school for is the piece of paper. But so long as they did the work straight As would be just about guaranteed.

    I wouldn’t trade my college days experience for the world but it does seem like we are due for an update on how one proves their knowledge to employers, especially when just starting out.

    1. Colleges are working hard on making their paper worthless.

      Most degrees certify that you paid tuition (one way or another) and occasionally showed up. Nothing more.

      Look at BAs in sciences. Those are science degrees with all the math and science removed. Never hire those people. e.g. A BA in chemistry is proof the the student failed P-Chem 3 times and was not so politely asked to: ‘Move along, take this consolation prize with you. You’re future is running drug screens.’

    2. Willpower is the major difference. Joining a gym to get fit only works for a bit till the enthusiasm wears off. Then people stop going. Pay a trainer though, and you have to stick with it. I suspect it is why Peleton et al are marginally effective- you’re paying the community to shame you into continuing.

    3. “all they would need the school for is the piece of paper”

      And in the US where only 10% went to college in the past instead of the current 60%, most of whom don’t really need to go to college to do what they’ll do after graduation, that’s all it has become, a piece of paper which has become the new standard which no longer sets employment candidates apart.

      Whereas college used to be something that could be funded by parent’s savings or a part time job for a student going to school part-time, the availability of loans which are risk free for the lender due to government guarantees results in loans to anyone who can fog a mirror for any useless degree.

      That has resulted in the cost of college rising to what the student customer is willing to pay and can pay as happens in all markets for goods and services, resulting in $1.6 TRILLION dollars in student debt. The government which CAUSED the problem by guaranteeing loans then says it will “fix” that problem by “forgiving” loans. Of course, loans aren’t “forgiven,” their payment is just transferred to those taxpayers who didn’t take the loans.

      1. Accounting for the Rise in College Tuition
        September 28, 2015

        http://www.nber.org/chapters/c13711.pdf

        Excerpt:

        “These results accord strongly with the Bennett hypothesis, which asserts that colleges respond to expansions of financial aid by increasing tuition. Existing theories can fully explain the increase in net tuition between 1987 and 2010. Our model suggests demand-side theories have the most predictive power. In fact, our results show the Bennett hypothesis can fully account for the tuition increase on its own.”

        The Bennett Hypothesis: “Increases in financial aid in recent years has enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuition, confident that Federal Loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.”

  6. I was a consumer electronics (radio and TV) technician up until about five years ago or so. It got to the point I was getting one or two sets in a month and the ones I did see, the parts cost ME more than a new tv would cost the customer! If I had to reply on electronic servicing now, I’d starve to death!

    1. These days a few people scratch out a living picking up broken TVs on the curb, repairing those where the only thing wrong is a single $25 LED strip and selling them for $100. Must suck but could still be better than metal scrapping.

  7. One of those companies had several computer courses in the 1980’s. One was building your own IBM PC clone. Another was a music course that included an Atari ST, which had built in MIDI with the DIN plugs so it was ready to connect to the keyboard that came with the course.

    I had old magazines from my grandfather so I saw the progress of technology in the TV courses from building monochrome, to color, to putting together an all solid state 25″ color TV – in a choice of housings from simple compact plastic on a metal stand to a full wooden cased console.

  8. The world owes Philo Farnsworth, one of those early correspondence-course students, a huge debt. Were it not for his invention of television, we would all have sat around in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, eating frozen radio dinners. (apologies to Johnny Carson ;-) )

  9. I’m working restoring a Heathkit digital trainer from the mid-1970s for the Media Archaeology Library at the university of colorado right now. It wasn’t specifically designed for this sort of correspondence school, but for a more general setup of providing a bunch of logic that you could wire together plugboard-style to create early ASICs. It’s a neat little machine, with a card rack capable of taking a bunch of different digital cards (ADC, DAC, logic, timers) and interfacing them with some switches on the front for providing the inputs and visualizing the outputs. Heathkit did a bunch of interesting professional equipment.
    There’s a mention at one point in the illustrations of an 18″ square, meaning 25″ diagonal, CRT. There’s a weird rabbithole to go explore about Madman Muntz, a self-taught (through a correspondence course) electrical engineer who designed the hardware for four-track tapes, the progenitor (via Bill Lear of Learjet fame) of the eight-track tape that was nearly ubiquitous in the 1970’s. Muntz also designed inexpensive radios that were ubiquitous in the 1950’s, and TV’s that nearly dominated the market in the 1960’s, by taking competitors’ TV’s and cutting out parts until they didn’t work anymore, then putting whatever the last thing he’d cut out back in, and selling the simplified and cheaper result, a practice called Muntzing. He was the person that came up with the idea of selling TV’s by their diagonal measurement rather than their x/y dimensions, and he also pioneered the histrionic advertising style of acting like he was giving such good deals to his customers that he had to be insane, with lots of screaming and flashy colors. He turned a lot of rich toys into affordable consumer electronics.

  10. I took NRI’s “Master Course in Microcomputers and Microprocessors” starting back around 1983. It included a TRS-80 Model III computer. It was all by snail-mail. Receive the course materials, read, the do the experiments and then send in the answer form and get back your graded results. From that humble beginning I went on to later work commissioning Linear Accelerators for Cancer Therapy, worked in a Cancer Clinic maintaining them and then got my MCSE in Windows NT. I’m retired now, had a lot of great jobs and never had a student loan to repay!

  11. Back in the mid ’80s, I was just another punk kid fresh out of high school. Got my first real job working underground in a zinc mine. I subscribed to Popular Electronics, and Electronics Illustrated. I was definitely interested in electronics. Had my first ham license at 11.
    I knew working at the mine was a dead-end job. I kept seeing the NRI courses advertising a great career with lots of money, so I dove in and took the Radio Communications Technician course with FCC license.
    I worked my tail off on that course, after work and weekends.
    Finished the course after about 10 months, got my First Class FCC license, quit my job as a miner and went to work as a broadcast engineer at KOAT TV in Albuquerque. Moved on from there as a two-way tech in several locations, finally ending up in Southern California, working as a tech on marine electronics equipment.
    After several other tries exercising my entrepreneurial spirit, I went to college and got a EE in communications engineering. That paid my way around the world, working as a contract engineer.
    Got married to my Colombian translator on a project in Bogota, and still having a great time with her after 27 years of marriage.
    Been retired for a couple of years, and I know I couldn’t have done this without my NRI training.

  12. I worked at the Air Force Research Lab with a lot of engineers and scientists. The military (most of which had EE degrees, up through Ph. D.) signed up for the Bell & Howell TV course. We traded the exam answers so we could zip through the course, the prize being: a 25″ color solid state (mostly) Heathkit TV kit. I ran ours for many years, and bought up dead ones for parts. A common failure mode was dirt getting on the circuit board where a HV regular feedback trace was right next to a B+ track. I fixed those with a piece of coax replacing the PCB trace. The theory of operation writeup was so good I could trace failures down to specific transistors on a chip.
    The TVs are gone, but I still have the Heathkit oscilloscope.

  13. When I was a young kid, I was gifted a Bell & Howell Oscilloscope+Multimeter from a family friend. Said friend had taken the IT&T course in electronics, and built the scope from a kit. I played with that all through school. The scope did not have a trigger or storage, so it was not particularly useful at capturing anything of value. It would show me waveforms and let me figure out frequencies, but that was about it. Great for a kid learning electronics, not so useful for digital circuits.

    Sold it about 20 years ago in a garage sale because the darn thing was huge and heavy, had a couple of weak tubes, and was no longer worth storing. I think it ended up in a school play as a mad scientist’s prop.

    1. I still have, somewhere, way rusted out, a DuMont 224B oscilloscope, with “Outpost No. 1” stenciled on its side. My father brought it home when I was a kid. Finally, I found out how to connect a power cord and get it to work.
      Where I work now has LCD scopes that are tiny, much faster, and much more powerful.

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