Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 679: HEATHKIT

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 679.

Today, let's build something. Let's build ourselves. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Dateline March 30th, 1992. New York Times writer Lawrence Fisher announces the end of an era that began when I was a teenager. The Heath Company has quit making Heathkits.

Do you remember when we built our stereo tuners, radios -- even TV sets -- from Heathkits? Electronics used to be very expensive in the stores. But they were very cheap if you had some patience and a soldering iron.

In the last decade, Heathkit sales have dropped to almost nothing as the cost of factory-built electronics also fell. The only reason to assemble a Heathkit today is fulfillment. It's no longer a line the Heath Company can afford to stock.

One long-time builder was Barry Goldwater. Twice a year, he'd fly his own plane to the Heath Company and stock up. Now 83 years old and builder of some 100 Heathkits, Goldwater grumbles,

... people today are getting terribly lazy, and they don't like to do anything they can pay someone else to do.
Maybe I should've elected him President when I had the chance.

I never built Heathkits myself. I built model airplanes. Last week I looked in a hobby shop to see how those old kits were doing. The planes I built then are still on sale. Kits I once bought with my 25-cent weekly allowance now go for $9.95. They'll probably be around only until my generation dies off.

We once completed ourselves as we completed those kits. Few mental stimuli match the thrill of creating a real, tactile, functioning object. Those models gave me my first sense of viability and effectiveness during the Hell of puberty. While I built them, they built my confidence and ability. I wonder what handwork like that could've done for the U.S. Presidency.

One young man joined Heath as a junior executive. They gave him a Heathkit and told him to assemble it. Fine! His TV repairman could put it together for him. Then he began looking at the manual and the parts. By 11:30 that night he'd built his own radio. It really worked. He was so excited, he ran off to wake his neighbor. Then he went on to become the company president.

Last month I came home to find my wife smiling like a Cheshire Cat. "The water hose in the car rotted out," She said spreading her greased-stained hands. "I just replaced it." She was feeling very good.

But we don't give ourselves many opportunities to feel good that way. Instead, we give our three-dimensional creativity over to two-dimensional computer and TV screens. And I wonder what fulfillments we offer today that can replace the things we once did with our own hands.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Fisher, L.M., Plug Is Pulled on Heathkits, Ending a Do-It-Yourself Era. The New York Times, Mon. March 30, 1992, pp. C1, C10.

Perhaps something of the Heath Company has survived. I wrote this episode in 1992. When I surfed the web in 1998, I discovered the following site: http://www.heathkit.com/



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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