Heath Kit

Heathkit sold do-it-yourself electronic kits. They weren't the first to do so, but they made a big success of it by providing virtually fool-proof instruction sheets.

They sold kits for amateur radio (Benton Harbor lunch box, anyone?), broadcast radio receivers, television, audio, and other electronic equipment. With the dawn of the microcomputer revolution, they began selling "intelligent" display terminal kits and then microcomputer kits. Heathkit sold computer kits several years before IBM's personal computer came about.

They were generally well-thought of, but expensive; the point was to have fun and learn, not to save money, by building their kits.

Actually, early on they were inexpensive; you could build at home stuff similar to what consumer manufacturers would build. This was the days, of course, of single-layer circuit boards and through-hole technology; most manufactured consumer goods (in the heyday of HeathKit) were hand-soldered by factory technicians.

They stopped selling kits and went out of business circa 1990, give or take a few years.

What killed Heathkit (or at least was a major factor in its demise) was the rise of surface-mount technology. With modern assembly techniques, the printed circuit boards found in most electronics went from couldn't be assembled by machine, to could be assembled by machine, to must be assembled by machine. Fine-pitch surface mount resistors and the like are notoriously difficult to solder by hand, especially by amateurs. Ball-grid arrays are flat-out impossible to solder by hand; those requires a sophisticated machine costing seven figures. With industry going to surface-mount; through-hole parts became increasingly more difficult (and expensive) to get. In addition, many functions of consumer electronics devices went from circuit boards built with off-the-shelf parts to custom ASICs that were generally not available.

Heathkit fell on hard times long before surface-mount. The low cost of mass-produced electronics using printed circuit boards made Heath's kits seem exhorbitantly expensive. When production electronics was hand-made, people could justify paying just a little less and having the satisfaction of building it themselves. But who wants to pay a lot more and still end up with a sub-standard product? Electronics technology moved on and Heath did not.

I have (still) a Heath/Zenith (H-89)Z-90. It's a fusion of their H19 terminal (a VT-52 emulator) with a CPU board running a 2.x Mhz Z80.

This was the last of their 8-bit lines. Previously, they produced (as kits) the H-11 (based on bit slice technology, along the lines of the DEC PDP family of machines) and the H-8 (running an Intel 8085 CPU). All of the Intel/Zilog powered Heath computers ran HDOS (HeathDiskOperatingSystem?) written by J. GordonLetwin (who later architected Microsoft's OS/2). This OS featured user-defined interrupt handlers and dynamically loadable device drivers.

The H-8, H-88, and H-89 (called Z-89 when pre-built by Zenith) would also all run CP/M 2.2 and were capable of driving just about every conceivable size and format of diskette available at the time.

The H/Z-89 (called the H/Z-90 when using the later disk controllers & BIOS) was a robust box that had no parallel ports but instead had three serial ports. There were conversion kits available to give the terminal graphics capability and add other (parallel or serial) ports.

It wasn't terribly fast, but was stunningly reliable.

Heath, with its background in building kits for everything electronic (oscilloscopes, radios, robots, etc.) had attained manual writing Nirvana. Their instructions were the clearest ever written anywhere for anything (okay, a little hyperbole, but they were damned good).

They also did course materials for topics relating to their hardware, like Continuing Education Assembly Language, Benton Harbor Basic, and so on. I learned AssemblyLanguage programming from their course. I still have (20+ years later) the original course binder. It occupies a place of honor on my shelf. I have sought in vain for books by other authors that were as clear and directly usable, and never found anything since that measured up.

HeathCompany? still exists, but ever since their marriage and divorce with Zenith, it's just not been the same.

I think a killer kit that they could produce would be some kind of PDA built around the Dragonball processor. it would be inexpensive, relatively small, and could be used to teach all kinds of fundamentals. Sigh.

-- GarryHamilton


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