Monthly Archives: December 2014

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.

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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.


Crosstown Traffic: Home Computers Behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War from Hackaday

Tesla Ondra computer (picture:Martin Malý)

I saw this article on Hackaday about the experiences of a man growing up in Czechoslovakia during the cold war.  It was quite interesting and anybody like me in the Western world who grew up with computers in the 1980s like the Commodore 64 or the Timex Sinclair (or ZX81) will enjoy the contrasting memoirs of Martin Malý:

In Czechoslovakia, there was the major electronics factory named Tesla. Its name should be an abbreviation of “Technika Slaboprouda” (“Low Voltage Technology” in English), but I guess it obviously referred to [Nicola Tesla]. It was formed as a holding of diverse electronics-related plants. One Tesla made semiconductors, another one made TVs, yet another produced record player chassis. It was a little bit of competition in the world of “total cooperative” (I remember they taught us that “competition is bad” in basic school, because “workers should cooperate in developing of socialism, neither compete nor rival”).

One of Czechoslovak computer prodigies, [Eduard Smutný], together with his twin brother [Tomáš] designed the industrial computer JPR-12, based on Israeli ELBIT, and pushed it into production in Tesla. Some years later they made JPR-1, the simple 8bit computer, based on 8080. One important moment about this computer was that these designers published complete schematics and PCBs in Czechoslovak hobby magazine “Amatérské Rádio”. It was curious – you could not buy parts like LEDs in a store, but there was a very strong hobbyist’s scene. These people made radio transmitters or home automation or HiFi amplifiers. The communist regime surprisingly supported them (or better say: don’t repressed them) in their activities, because it felt the economy needed technically skilled people.

Read more of Martin’s experience on Hackaday.


(Published from Elkhart, Indiana)

Editorial: Does DARA have Hamvention contingency plans if Hara Arena closes its doors?

It is difficult for any one of us to think about the Dayton Hamvention being held anywhere other than the Hara Arena.  After all, the Hara has been the home of Hamvention since 1964. Those of us die-hards that attend the Hamvention each May have a love-hate relationship with the place. We love the fact that it hasn’t collapsed on thousands of fellow hams.  We hate the fact that the plumbing is woefully inadequate, as demonstrated during the “Great Poopocalypse of 2011“:

1932225_10202841152127170_319204476_nThe above video also demonstrates the quality of the asphalt parking lot.  It hasn’t seen a new coat of asphalt in decades.  Luckily, there were enough potholes to contain the million or so gallons of liquid caca.  Inside the building isn’t much better — water stains on the walls and ceiling tiles, dim lighting, wet bathroom floors… I have editorialized about this a few times in the past.  I had a good write-up in the forums in 2012, and also on my old personal blog in 2009.

So we all know how bad the place is.  It’s probably not going to get any better, and the point was driven home this week when WDTN TV-2 News in Dayton did a small piece on how the Hara Arena is struggling to keep the doors open.

Let’s be honest here.  For all of it’s faults, the Hara Arena isn’t really a bad place.  The family-owned complex has been struggling for some time, but much of it is because it has faced stiff competition from convention centers and arenas that are subsidized by the taxpayers or by large universities (like Wright State University’s Nutter Center). Read more

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)

Cool video: Worlds simplest “electric train” built with an AA battery, magnets, and copper wire

Saw this and thought it was cool.  The theory behind it is interesting too.

Basically you are using the voltage in the battery to create a magnetic field in the section of the coil of wire that the battery is in.  The magnets on either end serve two functions – they conduct the battery voltage to the coil, and they serve as the opposing magnetic force that the moving magnetic field pushes against.


(Published from Chicago, IL)

Who knew?: Sir Mix-A-Lot likes big bootys and 8 bit microprocessors

Were you aware that Sir Mix-A-Lot, known for liking big butts, is also an electrical engineer?  According to a rap battle he participated in on Twitter last year with Mouser Electronics and Atmel, he also “likes his MOSFETs wide and juicy”:

It is still unconfirmed if he is/was also a ham radio operator.  The rumor mill states that he held N6IWP (under his real name Anthony Ray) but let it lapse in 2011.  However, the birth date of this licensee was a couple of years off, and a Google Street View of the station license address doesn’t seem like it would be the abode of one Mr. Mix-A-Lot.  HOWEVER, according to an Entertainment Weekly article in 2002, he owns (owned?) a ham radio parts company in Seattle:

No need to weep at the strains of ”Baby Got Back”: Despite reports to the contrary, its author isn’t toiling as a repairman. Actually, the 38-year-old MC employs five workers at RC Electronics, a Seattle area ham-radio-parts manufacturing biz he launched in 1994. ”It’s not gonna make anywhere near the money music is making me, but it’s something to fall back on,” says Mix-A-Lot (né Anthony Ray).

The world may never know….


(Published from Chicago, IL)

In the News: Ham Radio net connects kids to Santa

Yesterday, The Times-Herald Record in Middletown, NY featured the Orange County (NY) Amateur Radio Club and their annual “Santa Net,” a “fun project that invites youngsters to talk to Santa on the radio.”  From the Record:

The Orange County Amateur Radio Club – OCARC – will host its annual “Santa Net,” a fun project that invites youngsters to talk to Santa on the radio, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.
Hosting the free get-together will be the club’s friends, Tina Marchie and Jean Halahan, at Family Farm Ice Cream, 253 Tower Drive in the Town of Wallkill.
The club members will be on the air all day. Some will serve as on-site “OCARC elves,” no doubt helping with ice cream treats. Some will have hand-held radios on which the youngsters can be connected to the North Pole.
The club also will be on the air all day on “short-wave” ham bands on pre-announced frequencies: 14.220, 7.200, and 3.920 mHz. Hams anywhere can tune in, so youngsters in their ham shack can also contact Santa.

A great public service activity.  Great job, OCARC!


(Published from DFW, Texas)


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.

In the News: Trouble in Mecca? Dayton Hamvention Venue Hara Arena in Financial Trouble

My my my.  What a surprise!  WDTN TV-2 News in Dayton says that the crumbling Hara Arena (home of the Dayton Hamvention for over 50 years) is finally facing financial problems.

I’m not being fair here.  Yes the place is a dump.  There is not a white ceiling tile in the place.  The parking lot asphalt has not been resurfaced since the Roman empire.  But they have some good excuses.  Mainly, since it is a privately owned facility, it is difficult to compete with other venues that receive tax subsidies.

Hara’s Director of Marketing says it is tough for Hara to compete with venues like the Nutter Center, but they’re keeping a positive attitude.

Hara generated $34-million into the community through 239 events last year.

“As taxpayers, we’re competing against facilities that are subsidized by tax dollars and because of that we are struggling to compete. The primary challenges are that we need renovation dollars and the ownership model needs to be changed,” said Karen Wampler, Director of Marketing at Hara Arena.

Wampler told 2 NEWS they are working with a company called Venuworks that specializes in restoring event venues.

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