September 1969 Electronics World
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
Electronics World, published May 1959
- December 1971. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
There are not too many honest-to-goodness electronics repair shops around anymore - those where the proprietor uses multimeters, oscilloscopes, and signal generators to troubleshoot and align equipment. In fact, I would guess that most such shops do most of their business based on customers who find their services as the result of a Google search. You can find lots of cool videos of technicians demonstrating (and showing off) their collection of test equipment and solder rework stations - mostly for fixing vintage audio and video gear. Nowadays the smartphone screen replacement dude / dudette working from a kiosk in the shopping mall is considered an electronics repairman / repairwoman, which is not to diminish the important service they provide, but it's just not the same thing as someone who methodically determines that a single transistor has blown or a transformer winding is shorted. Mac and Barney plied their trade during the era when electronics were transitioning from large, roomy, hand-wired chassis to crowded, limited working space printed circuit boards.
Deciding if a piece of electronic equipment should be repaired or not often involves technician's honesty and technical ability.
By John Frye
As usual, the September weather had turned hot to welcome the kids back to school. Vacation time was over; new programs were coming on the air; and people were wanting their summer-weary TV sets put into shape for the fall season. All day Mac and Barney had been steadily chipping away at the array of portable sets stacked on the receiving bench; but finally Mac tossed his test prods on the bench, worked his weary shoulders back and forth a couple of times, and took his pipe from a shirt pocket. That was Barney's clue to stop work, too, and to get himself a cold drink from the battered but faithful refrigerator in a corner of the service shop.
"You know, Mac," he said to his employer as he rotated the frosty bottle between his palms, "it's getting harder and harder for anyone in our line of work to 'get away from it all.' Time was when an electronics technician could take his fishing rod, his .22 rifle, or his hunting dog and head for the open country and give his mind a complete vacation from all thoughts of tubes or transistors - but no more."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because of some harrowing experiences I've had lately. Last week I was fishing for bluegills over at Lake Schaeffer and not doing too hot, but the joker next to me kept moving around a few yards at a time and dragging in the fish with disgusting frequency. I finally broke down and asked what bait he was using and found he was using catalpa worms just as I was; but he was also using a little green box that turned out to be one of those sonar fish finders. That was why he was moving every few minutes; he was simply staying with the school of bluegills.
"The weekend before I went crow-hunting. I noticed the crows seemed to like the woods across the field from where I was, and I could hear a regular crow caucus going on over there. Imagine my disgust when I sneaked over and found another hunter using what he termed 'an electronic game caller.' It was actually a transistorized 45 rpm phonograph with a husky amplifier working into a 25-watt speaker. The whole thing weighed nine pounds. He was using a crow-calling record, of course, but he told me the manufacturer also sold records for calling fox, coyote, duck, goose, raccoon, wildcat, hawk, turkey, moose, deer, quail, and squirrel."
"I'll bet making those records took some doing," Mac commented.
"Yeah," Barney said with a grin. "I hadn't thought of that.
Anyway, I somehow didn't feel it was quite cricket for me to hang around and shoot his crows, although he invited me to do so; so I started home, and on the way I ran across a hound dog acting most peculiarly. Twice I saw him take off after a rabbit, but each time he came to a screeching halt and started whining and shaking his head. When I found the owner a quarter-mile down the road sitting on a high knoll and holding what looked like a walkie-talkie, I learned the reason. He was using an Electronic Dog Trainer to break his coon dog of chasing rabbits. The animal was wearing a light, waterproof unit on his collar that gave him a light shock when the owner actuated the hand-held transmitter. The guy told me the trainer would work up to a half mile and was dandy for curing dogs of biting, chasing cars and bicycles, or even barking excessively. He claimed only a few treatments were necessary to convert an ill-behaved dog into a canine gentleman; then the collar unit could be removed - at least until the dog developed another bad habit you wanted to break him of."
"You've convinced me there's no getting away from electronics," Mac said, "but now, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you about something a little closer to home. I mean the problem of having to decide whether we should fix a piece of electronic gear that comes into the shop or advise the owner to junk it. That problem is becoming hairier by the day."
"How's that, Boss?"
"A lot of factors bear on the problem. A big one is the fact that there is a widening gap between manufacturing and service costs. In the electronic industry, it's a lot easier to automate manufacturing than service; and the only way to hold down costs these days is to eliminate human labor as much as possible. Printed and integrated circuits help the manufacturer do just that; so we end up having a highly trained person working on a cheaply produced piece of equipment."
"Yeah, and don't forget the very techniques that make automation possible render the finished product more difficult and tedious to service. No wonder it's often as cheap to buy a new transistorized radio as it is to have the old one repaired."
"That's right," Mac agreed. "I'm sure most of us would rather service a roomy hand-wired chassis than one of those crowded printed-circuit jobs, but service on these older sets is expensive, too, because of the exorbitant prices on the obsolescent tubes they use. I firmly believe the Golden Age of the a.c.-d.c. receiver was reached with the five- and six-tube sets using 12SA7, 12SK7, 12SQ7, 35Z5, and 50L6 tubes. Cabinets then were often wood and large enough to accommodate a decent-sized speaker, to give good ventilation, and to permit the use of a large loop antenna. The chassis was not crowded, and Rube Goldberg dial cord arrangements were the exception instead of the rule. The sets were easy to service, and the fact many of them are still working beautifully is a tribute to their simple, straightforward design and manufacture. But the prices of the tubes they use have been jacked up and up until today retubing one of these receivers costs more than the whole set did originally."
"Lots of these older sets are owned by retired people or others having a low income," Barney observed. "If you tell one of these that he should junk his set, that may mean he will have to do without a radio altogether. Seventy percent of the people drawing Social Security have no other income. On the other hand, some workers in the building trades have boosted their wages until they make more in a day than the person on social security gets in a month. Unless the affluent person has a sentimental attachment to his old radio - and such an attachment is by no means unusual - he will be quite willing to discard his old receiver and buy a new one. The rapidly widening gap between personal incomes has to be considered in suggesting what is to be done about a piece of defective electronic gear."
"Ethics and motives also get into the picture," Mac said. "Take the case of the service-dealer. There's always a temptation for him to encourage his customer to discard his old receiver and buy a new one, even though the old set could be repaired at a reasonable cost. Customers sense this. They often complain to us, when they bring in the receiver the service-dealer said was not worth fixing, 'That guy was a lot more interested in selling me a new TV than he was in repairing my old set.'
"Let's not forget that cuts both ways," Barney warned. "The service shop owner who does not sell radios or TV sets may be just as tempted to encourage his customer to put a lot of money into repairs when that money would be better spent on a new receiver. Saying 'junk it' in this case not only means losing a lucrative service charge at the moment, but it may well mean the future loss of the customer altogether to the dealer who sells him a new receiver."
"The competence of the service technician also plays a large part in this fix-it-junk-it advice," Mac explained. "If the technician is a poor one, he is at loss when he encounters anything really difficult in troubleshooting or servicing. Rather than admit his ignorance, he is likely to tell the customer the receiver is beyond repair. All he gets out of this is his estimate charge, but he also manages to conceal his incompetence. That often is worth a lot to him. Oddly enough, some technicians unconsciously use this dodge to conceal their incompetence from themselves. They rationalize their way into believing an astonishing number of radios and TV sets are 'not worth fixing.' I call these fellows 'coroner technicians' because they spend a large part of their time pronouncing equipment too dead to revive."
"The ones who lie to themselves like that are bad enough," Barney offered, "but the fellows I can't stomach are the ones who, when they can't fix a set, go ahead and gimmick it up so that any other technician who may try to fix it will have an almost impossible job. I've heard them boast, 'If I can't repair it, I fix it so no one else can!'"
"Fortunately there are not many of those, and even the Twelve Disciples contained a Judas," Mac said philosophically, "but I think I've made my point that trying to decide whether a set is worth fixing these days is not easy, no matter how honest and ethical you try to be. Personally, I try to take into consideration the age of the receiver, its original cost, its general condition and appearance, the cost of restoring it to like-new performance, the cost of an equivalent replacement, and the probable importance of the set to the owner. This last item includes such matters as any sentimental value the receiver may have for the owner and whether or not he can afford to buy a replacement. If I don't think he can, I hesitate a long time before telling him the set should be junked. It's surprising how much a good technician can do toward keeping an old set going with a minimum of cost if he really tries, and in the case of some poor old person trying to hold body and soul together with a meager Social Security check, I'm willing to try."
"Uh-huh," Barney said softly. "I've seen you try so hard you didn't even get fully paid for the parts you put into the set. You just charged enough so the poor customer could keep his self respect. You're a traitor to your Scots ancestry, Mr. McGregor! But let me tell you my formula for deciding whether to fix or junk:
"I say to myself, 'Barney, you handsome Irish devil - that's the way I always talk to myself when we're alone together - do you really know what's wrong with this set and precisely how to repair it? If it were your receiver, would you be willing to pay what you are going to charge the customer to have it fixed?' If I can answer both of these questions in the affirmative, I go ahead and repair it. If I have to say 'No' to that last question, I tell the owner I do not think the set is worth repairing but that I am perfectly willing to repair it if he wants me to. And do you know what? In a surprising number of cases, he tells me to go ahead. Then I'm glad I did a thorough job of troubleshooting before I gave him an estimate and my advice."
Posted October 13, 2017
Mac's Radio Service Shop Episodes on RF Cafe
This series of instructive stories was the brainchild of none other than John T.
Frye, creator of the Carl and Jerry series that ran in
Popular Electronics for many years. Mac's Radio Service Shop began life
in Radio & Television News
magazine (which itself started as simply Radio News), and then changed
its name to Mac's Service Shop after the magazine became
World. 'Mac' is electronics repair shop owner Mac McGregor, and Barney
is his eager, if not somewhat naive, technician assistant. 'Lessons' are taught
in story format with dialogs between Mac and Barney.