Category Archives: Electronics History

Electronics History and News: Heathkit Finally Opens!

Heathkit logo (fair use)

A couple of years ago, rumors started to circulate that Heathkit was coming back.  Last December I posted about “The Great Heathkit Mystery” when the good folks over at Adafruit started poking at the Heathkit hornets nest and finally got them to talk:

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.

The last ten months have given us nothing but rumors — including rumors of a Heathkit retail store. And we waited. Read more

Electronics History: The 555 Timer

The 555 Timer IC (Wikipedia photo)

While researching for my last post about the plasma arc audio speaker, it got me waxing nostalgic about the 555 Timer Integrated Circuit, one of the most versatile ICs ever designed. The Plasma Arc Audio Speaker I wrote about was one of the coolest things I have ever seen built around a 555, which is a favorite and classic chip that first hit the silicon scene in the 1970s. Read more

Electronics History and News: “The Great Heathkit Mystery”

Adafruit has a featured article on their blog about the current state of Heathkit.  When I was a lad I got to tour the Heathkit company in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a short trip from where I grew up.  Up until the early ’90s, Heathkit helped many enter the world of electronics, computers, and ham radio by allowing them to build their own equipment and learn how it works step-by-step.  In 1992 that all ended when Heathkit closed their doors to the hobbyist market and attempted to stay alive by serving the educational market.  That ended in 2008.

Well, last year came an exciting announcement that Heathkit was going to rebuild.  We all held our breath, but one year later we’re turning blue.  Lady Ada and the intrepid sleuths at Adafruit set to find out exactly who these people were and what they were up to, and their article went viral.

1 year ago to the day today (12/20/2013) a member of the “board of directors” CEO/President of whoever may or may not own Heathkit did a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) – it’s unclear who they are, they would not say when asked and there is not any information on their FAQ page about the ownership. During the AMA, the person with the account “HeathCompany” answered in first person, described the “board” and the “CEO” but didn’t provide any details. The person did say “The CEO is avid musician and composer” and as far as the management team claiming to own Heathkit now, the person said they are: “Active in the industry 25+ years ago? Yes. Hams 25+ years ago? Yes.”

On the FAQ page, it has the following:

Q. So who are you guys?
A. More on this later…

It’s been 1 year and there has not been an update on the Heathkit site or Facebookpage. They had some type of prize they promised during last year’s Reddit AMA, it’s unknown what happened with that, the winner was an account called “IFoundTheHeathKit” that only posted once. There is a twitter account called “Heathkit” but it’s owned by “Just some guy” in Seattle, WA.

Read more

Electronics History: 40 years of the Personal Computer

On December 19, 1974 the first successful personal computer — the Altair 8800 — went on sale to the public. Poynter profiles the Altair and Bill Gates’ contribution to develop its first programming language — BASIC:

On December 19, 1974, the first successful personal computer went on sale. They called it the Altair 8800.

Popular Electronics magazine profiled the new PC in their January 1975 issue. Readers learned that for $395 you could order a kit to build the Altair yourself or buy it assembled for $495. The Altair 8800 came with 256 bytes of computer memory and Intel’s 8080 processor.

“For many years, we’ve been reading and hearing about how computers will one day be a household item. Therefore, we’re especially proud to present in this issue the first commercial type of minicomputer project ever published that’s priced within reach of many households — the Altair 8800….”

Ed Roberts, the creator of the Altair, worked with Bill Gates and Paul Allen to develop the PC’s first programming language.

The partnership between Gates and Allen marked the beginning of the Microsoft company, which officially started on April 4, 1975.

Read more at Poynter.


Electronics History: Why aren’t there “B” batteries?

Saw this link from MentalFloss on my Facebook feed just now, posted by a friend-of-a-friend:  Why aren’t there B-size batteries?  Well, it turns out that there are, er, there were:

Reader Donna wrote in wondering why there are AA, AAA, C and D batteries, but no B. Well, there used to be, but they’re not really needed anymore.

Around the time of World War I, American battery manufacturers, the War Industries Board, and a few government agencies got together to develop some nationally uniform specifications for the size of battery cells, their arrangement in batteries, their minimum performance criteria, and other standards.

In 1924, industry and government representatives met again to figure out a naming system for all those cells and batteries they had just standardized. They decided to base it around the alphabet, dubbing the smallest cells and single-cell batteries “A” and went from there to B, C and D. There was also a “No. 6” battery that was larger than the others and pretty commonly used, so it was grandfathered in without a name change.

As battery technology changed and improved and new sizes of batteries were made, they were added to the naming system. When smaller batteries came along, they were designated AA and AAA. These newer batteries were the right size for the growing consumer electronics industry, so they caught on. C and D batteries also found a niche in medium- and high-drain applications. The mid-size A and B batteries simply didn’t have a market and more or less disappeared in the U.S..

The article goes on to say that A batteries used to be used in some early laptops, and both A and B size batteries are still out in the wild.  However, a quick search at some of the obscure electronics sites has left me empty-handed.


(Publushed from a Starbucks in Burr Ridge, IL)

Electronics History: The Digi-Key Corporation and Ham Radio

While stubling around Wikipedia the other day, I came to the entry about the Digi-Key Corporation.  Digi-Key is now the fifth largest electronics distributors in the country.  I have ordered from them many times for both personal and business purchases.  The following bit in the Wikipedia article caught my eye:

Ronald Stordahl founded the company in 1972 and its name is a reference to the “Digi-Keyer Kit”, a digital electronic keyer kit that he developed and marketed to amateur radio enthusiasts. He continues to privately own the company.[2]

To verify this I followed the footnote (link left intact in the quote above).  This took me to the Digi-Key history page on the Digi-Key website.  Sure enough:

It was Dr. Ronald A. Stordahl’s interest in ham radio that provided the springboard for what has become Digi-Key Corporation today.

While in college he assembled and began selling a digital electronic keyer kit for sending radiotelegraph code for ham radio operators. It was called the Digi-Key.

After obtaining his PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Stordahl returned to his hometown of Thief River Falls, Minnesota. The keyer kit was discontinued and he began selling electronic components in 1972. The Digi-Key “Keyer” is long gone, but Digi-Key Corporation has become one of the fastest growing electronic component distributors in the world.

Further searching took me to an article about Digi-Key CEO Mark Larson on the Website:

Can you tell us a little of how Digi-Key started?
The real beginning of Digi-Key was about 1969. Ron Stordahl was a Ham Radio enthusiast and, while a graduate student at the university, developed an electronic keying device for sending Morse code which utilized integrated circuits and other electronic components. He decided to sell this device in the form of a kit to other Ham Radio hobbyists. The kit included the components and an etched circuit board on which one could solder the components. He advertised this kit as the “Digi-Keyer.” Although he sold a reasonable number of kits, he sold far less “Digi-Keyers” than he had planned. He decided to stop selling this kit, but was committed for many components for kits that were never sold. In an effort to recover his cost for these excess parts, he decided that he would try to sell them by advertising in magazines. This marked the beginning of Digi-Key Corporation in 1972 as a distributor of electronic components. With a modest inventory, Stordahl expanded his marketing plan to supplement magazine advertising with Digi-Key’s one-page, typewritten, and mimeographed “catalogue.”


(Published from DFW, Texas)

Newer (than below) Editor’s Note (12/5):
My friend Ron Kritzman pointed me toward an article in the 1968 QST on page 22 titled “An Integrated-Circuit Electronic Keyer” by Richard Halvorson WØZHN and Ronald Stordahl (then-KØUXQ).  Still no picture of the Digi-Keyer.


Editor’s Note:  I tried to find a picture of the original Digi-Keyer Kit.  All I found was a product from MicroHam, of which I am reasonably sure it wasn’t Stordahl’s design since it has USB.  If anybody has one of these original kits, or at least a photograph, let me know, I’d like to add a picture.