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
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
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