The Heathkit Story
Edward Bayard Heath (1888-1931) started his career in the aviation business. He built his first airplane in 1909 based on a Bleriot monoplane design. In 1912 he acquired the Bates Aeroplane Co in Chicago, Illinois, and refounded it in 1913 as the E.B. Heath Aerial Vehicle Co, that was manufacturing and trading aviation parts. At that time he also designed his 2nd airplane.
During the WWI the business grew and in 1918 he came up with his 3rd airplane design, called the "Feather", that was a small and light biplane meant to be cheap enough to be all man's airplane. But the WWI ended and the surplus market became overcrowded with cheap outranged military airplanes so the market for the "Feather" disappeared. During the war Edward Heath changed the name of the company to Heath Airplane Company.
Instead of manufacuring the "Feather" he started to teach flying. In 1921 he designed his next airplane called the "Favorite". It was another biplane design. In 1926 he designed the famous "Parasol" airplane. It was a monoplane with good characteristics. He sold blueprints to people who wanted to build the "Parasol" them selves and the first Heath Kit was a fact. For several years the "Parasol" was a popular airplane and improved versions like the "Super Parasol" was designed. Heath used converted Henderson motorcycle engines in his designs. During a test flight of a low wing aircraft in 1931 Edward Heath tragically crashed and died.
A short time after Edward Heath died, Walter Clinnin purchased the company and moved it to Niles, Michigan. In 1933 the company name was changed to the International Aircraft Corporation. Walter Clinnin invested alot in the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 and 1934. It didn't turn out well and money was lost. This, combined with some other questionable transactions, eventually lead to the closing down of the business in 1934.
In 1935Howard Anthony purchased the bankrupt company, changed the name back to Heath Aircraft Company and moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan. Howard and his wife Helen, ran the company that stayed in the aircraft parts business until the end of WWII, but Howard Anthony also started to produce radios for aircrafts. Then Howard Anthony bought a large stock of surplus wartime electronics parts. 5BP1 CRT's in large numbers was part of the stock so Howard had an oscilloscope designed, to sell in kit form for half the price a comparable factory built oscilloscope would have cost.
In 1947 the O-1 oscilloscope kit was an instant success and the Heath Company definitely changed from the aircraft business to the era of electronics. Howard Anthony came up with several more test instrument kits. Gradually he also added kits for amateur radio, hi-fi and other consumer electronics. From the beginning Howard realized that a detailed instruction manual was important and was one of the keys to the success of Heathkit. The Heath instruction manuals was easy to follow, step by step, for both non-technical beginners and for more experienced engineers.
The Heathkit plant at Territorial Road in Benton Harbor at about 1950
In 1954 Howard Anthony was about to buy aDeHavilland Dove twin engined business aircraft. To test it before buying it, Howard and four other passengers took off from Ross Field in Benton Harbor. They came in to a violent storm that broke the aircraft apart. All aboard was killed in the crash.
In 1955 Daystrom Inc acquired the Heath Company. During the Daystrom era more new kits was developed and the company grew. A new modern plant was needed and in 1958 it was completed. It was built at Hilltop Road in St. Joseph, the twin city of Benton Harbor.
The Heathkit plant at Hilltop Road in St. Joseph at about 1960
Daystrom Inc established distribution centers in other countries. A factory in Gloucester made kits for the British market, but also for other European countries. Some, but not all, of the British made kits had a different style than the American counterparts. They also had a U (for United Kingdom) in the designations. The American made kits that was meant for export (i.e. meant for 115V/230V supply voltage) had an E (for Export) in the designations.
The Heathkit plant in Gloucester in England at about 1968
In 1962 Schlumberger Ltd bought the Daystrom Inc. The 60's and the 70's was the most golden years for the green Heathkit. Millions of kits was produced and they went towards more complex products, towards integrated circuits, towards digital techniques and into the computer business.
The plant at Hilltop Road was expanded several times;
1962, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1974 and 1980.
The Heathkit plant at Hilltop Road in St. Joseph at about 1968
In 1974 Heathkit started the Heathkit Educational Systems and began developing technical training and educational materials for use in schools, corporations, etc. Already in 1963 the Heath Company started focus on education and science by launching the complete laboratory workbench Heath Malmstadt-Enke EU-100. In 1972 the updated EU-101A was launched.
In 1979 the Zenith Radio Company bought the Heath Company from Schlumberger. Unfortunately Zenith was basically only interested in the Heathkit H8/H89 computers, that was an instant success in 1978.
A new building, at the opposite side of the Hilltop Road, was built for the Heath/Zenith Data Systems. Zenith staked on the computer business and let, more or less, the other activities decay, so this was the beginning of the end of the fantastic Heathkit era. In the 80's the complexity of general electronic products and import of cheap mass produced electronics made it hard to sell kits that costed as much, or even more, as comparable factory built products of other brands. This made it hard for the Heath Company to stay in business. Lighting and Security was new product lines that was added to find ways to stay in business.
In 1982 the Heath Company launched their last Amateur Radio. It was the SS-9000, but it was to complicated to construct, even for an advanced kit-builder, so it came factory assembled. It was a state of the art transceiver with all the bells and whistles. There was also the HW-5400that wasn't as advanced as the SS-9000 , but still an advanced transceiver.
By 1985 the Amateur Radio division of the Heath Company had decayed completely and the remaining of the fine products, like the SS-9000, HW-5400 and HW-99, was on sale.
In 1989 the Zenith Data Systems was acquired by the French company Groupe Bull.
In 1990 the Heath Company launched their last PC-kits. It was the HS-3629 and the HS-2862, a 80386 Desktop and a 80286 Laptop.
In 1991 the Heath Company, except Zenith Data Systems, left the Hilltop Road plant and moved to a former K-mart building at Riverview Drive in Benton Harbor.
In 1992 the end of Heathkit, as the kit producer we remember it to be, was definite. The kit lines was discontinued and all product lines that was left was the Lighting, Security and Educational Systems.
In 1995 the HIG Capital Management Inc bought the Heath Company and Packard Bell bought Zenith Data Systems.
In 1998 DESA International bought the Lighting and Security business, but also the Heath Company name. Donald Desrochers private investment corporation bought the Heathkit Company, i.e. The Heathkit Educational Systems and that is what's left of the former Heath Company.
In 2002 the HIG Capital Management Inc bought the bankrupt DESA back and became the owner of the Heath/Zenith Co for the 2nd time.
In 2007 the Duchossois Group Inc bought the Heath/Zenith Co from HIG and established the HeathCo LLC and built a new corporate facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 2008.
In September 2008, the Heathkit Company moved to Hawthorne Avenue in St. Joseph. The Heathkit Company resided in almost half of the former K-mart building at Riverview Drive in Benton Harbor. The rest of the building is used by the Benton Harbor Charter School, that also owns the building. The school was expanding and need the whole building. The building at Hawthorne Avenue in St. Joseph was used by the Heath/Zenith Data Systems in the 80's and is quite close to the former Heath Company building at Hilltop Road. The Heathkit Company resided in about 10% of the building. The Heathkit Company and the Heathkit Educational Systems of yesterday, was a profitable and wealthy company under the leadership of the owner, Don Desrochers, and the President and CEO, Lori Marciniak.
As of this week 26 AUG 12 Heathkit is no more.
For the second time since 1992, Heathkit Educational Services (HES) has shuttered its doors. Rumors of the legendary kit-building company’s demise were posted on QRZ.com, with several readers bringing the news to the attention of the ARRL. In August 2011, Heathkit announced it was returning to the kit building business, and in September, that it would once again be manufacturing Amateur Radio kits.
The ARRL tried to reach Heathkit to confirm that the company is still in business, but their phone and fax numbers have a continuous busy signal, and e-mails to the company have gone unanswered.
On LinkedIn, a popular networking site, HES Chief Executive Officer Lori Marciniak listed her employment ending at Heathkit as of March 2012. Likewise, Heathkit’s Marketing and Sales Director Ernie Wake listed his employment ending in April 2012. An unsubstantiated report on Wikipedia states that “[in] December 2011, Heathkit Educational Systems laid off most employees and in March 2012, the company indefinitely suspended operations.”
Tom Ferriter, of Technical Education Products, is an outside sales representative for HES, based in Hampden, Massachusetts. “Heathkit is telling us that they have temporarily closed, but that they are hopeful that they will be able to reorganize,” he told the ARRL. “While they’re not telling us too much, they did say that they were having poor sales for a myriad of reasons and are hopeful that they will be able to refinance the company and negotiate with the bank to refinance some of the debt.”
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