Back in the 1960s and 70s there were two types of electronic gadget you could buy- the slick and finished product and the do-it-yourself kit. While the finished item would naturally cost more and appeal to a lazy public who didn’t care what was inside the shiny plastic case (just so long as it worked), the second approach was far more hands-on and was squarely aimed at the burgeoning amateur hobby market. Here in exchange for your endless patience and growing frustration levels, upon completion you could theoretically have the same desirable gadget as the Jones’ next door but at a fraction of the cost and the added pride of accomplishment. Today as we look back at the post war electronics boom it is easy to overlook or brush aside the vital part this band of happy amateurs and associated companies have played in shaping the overall industry.
Although people have tinkered with their gadgets for millennia, it was really the rise of the scientific hobbyist in the 19th Century which gave this past-time a sense of legitimacy. Suddenly scientific construction kits, how-to manuals and relevant subscription magazines became an acceptable way to educate people about new and potentially lucrative engineering skills. Thus with the rise of radio in the 1920s it was engaged amateurs who would largely drive the new market, and when war broke out in 1939 they would help keep the army’s communications systems up and running. By the post war years the amateur constructor was still going strong with the added bonus that now two generations were growing up electrically savvy. Once again it was amateurs who helped the development of mobile communication and groups such as the Homebrew club who pushed ahead the vision of a home computer. Here keen young amateurs such as Steve Jobs would go on to form some of the most important Tech companies of today.
Heathkit and Sinclair
As is true with any market where there exists the potential for earning money, many dozens of companies emerged to service the needs of the amateur constructors. Most of these companies have been forgotten by history, but two of the most influential stand out- they are Heathkit in the US and Sinclair in the UK.
Edward Heath set up the Heath Company in 1911 initially as an aircraft company in the brand-new field of aeronautics. By 1926 the company had branched out into supplying a kit form of one of their planes (the Heath Parasol), but when Edward Heath died on a test flight in 1931 the company slowly collapsed and was subsequently bought out by a business man named Howard Anthony. It was Anthony who decided (rather wisely) that selling parts rather than whole products was the way forward, and when WW2 ended it was again Anthony who chose to move his Heathkit company into the brand-new electronics field by buying up a stock-pile of old army parts to re-purpose as consumer kits. In 1957 Heathkit released their first electronic kit in the form of an Oscilloscope which proved so successful that it would cement their future direction. Within a few years Heathkit would become the most successful company in its field in the US. Their skill was in not only turning a stockpile of random cheap parts into a marketable product (without the expensive labour costs), but in fostering loyal customers would come back time and again as they needed further parts for their projects.
Across the pond in the UK a young Clive Sinclair was probably looking upon the success of Heathkit with extreme interest. Although we now associate Sinclair with its highly influential range of home computers that emerged in the early 1980s (or their ill-fated C5 vehicle), Sinclair Radionics actually emerged and blossomed by learning from the successes of Heathkit to supply cheap electronic kits to eager amateurs. Sinclair’s business was set up in 1961 to humble beginnings and sold its first kit radio (the Sinclair Slimline) in 1963. Like others around at the time they relied heavily on cast-off components to keep their prices mouth-wateringly low. Overall Sinclair did extremely well supplying pocket radios and amplifiers in kit form, before branching out further into calculators, watches, TVs and scientific equipment. Just like Heathkit, most products were offered either in kit form or fully built, and as a company they were keen to stay on the cutting edge of electronic inventions by trying to be the first to come to market with new innovations but at a price their competitors could not beat. This earned Sinclair many supporters as well as product failures (such as his Calculator Watch of 1977), since the oft low quality of parts meant even completing these kits was no certainty that they would actually work!
By the 1980s the public mood for electronic kits was cooling right down and there was a growing move within the industry to actually discourage people to build, open up or fiddle with their beloved tech. Thankfully I’m happy to say now a revival in hobby electronics appears to be underway again with companies such as Raspberry-Pi going from strength to strength.
When comparing mid-century amateur electronic kits with regular shop floor products of the time, it is all too easy to laugh off their contribution as little more than low-grade wannabees. It is true that many lacked the finished look of their mainstream counterparts and often even failed to work as usable instruments, but as tools to engage and enthuse new and keen people to enter the fields such as computing, telecommunications and scientific research, their long-term impact cannot be understated.