If you’re under 50, you’ve likely never heard the name “Heathkit.” But if you’re on the other side of that number, it might just warm your heart.
Heathkit was a company that sold some of the best consumer electronics as kits. That’s right, you built it yourself from discrete components. These kits didn’t necessarily cost less than something comparable from a store. It was all about the pride of doing it yourself.
Take a look
I found a site with a small representative sample of old Heathkit catalogs. That’s right, for most of the company’s existence, you didn’t just build it yourself, but you had to order the thing and wait weeks for it to show up! The 1973 edition is probably my favorite, because I think it represents the height of build-it-yourself tech. Once semiconductors came into the world of consumer electronics, it was increasingly hard for regular folks to assemble things themselves. Once you look at the 1983 edition, there’s a lot more stuff that’s partially or fully assembled. Why? Because realistically you couldn’t have a pocket calculator that a person could build themselves. It wasn’t technically possible.
Why would you do this?
As I said, most Heathkit products weren’t less expensive than other consumer electronics. It was all for the fun of doing it yourself. It’s easy to dismiss this as just something people did to pass the time because there was no Netflix and no smartphones. But, I think there was something more to it than that. In the 20th century, the drive for knowledge was a source of pride. A Heathkit was tangible proof that you were capable of building something, and that you learned something along the way.
I should say, it’s easy to repeat that old trope “Kids today don’t want to learn anything.” The truth is that we have a very different relationship with information now. Today it takes no effort to research something, to at least get a cursory understanding of it. In days past, you either needed a large personal library or you had to carry that knowledge in your noggin. So you did. People today learn a great many things. How to build a television just isn’t one of them.
My own memories of Heathkit
In my younger days, I lived near a Heathkit showroom. I would go in and marvel at the kits you could buy. I didn’t yet have the skill to build one, nor did I have the money to get a kit to try. There were a few kits for young people, radios and such, but I really wanted to build the big electronic stuff and I didn’t have the scratch.
But, I knew people who did. I knew someone who built a Heathkit television in the late 1960s, one of the early color TVs without electronic tuning. Yes, it was hard to get a picture but once you did, it was solid. That TV would probably still work today if TV technology hadn’t changed. And that TV was more than just an “idiot box.” It was a trophy. It was a reminder of something that had been accomplished.
Heathkit is “sorta” still around. They have a very kludgy site where you can buy a few kits. But the concept isn’t really viable today. Today, the closest analogue would be something like Minecraft, where people build just for the fun of it. It was always about the journey, you see, and Minecraft is the same journey. So is coding. That spirit is alive and well even if Heathkit… really isn’t.