November 1972 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
If you are a seasoned reader of
episodes of "Mac's Service Shop," you might have noticed that the stories almost always begin
with either Mac or Barney commenting on the weather, which corresponds to the time of year
in which the story was originally published. Note the reference to the "bleak, cold November
morning" in this November edition of Popular Electronics. This time around, the boss
and trusty employee discuss the value of electronics kits, Heathkits in particular. BTW,
Heathkit is now making an impressive
comeback into the kit realm with new designs. Manuals for some of the more popular vintage
Heathkit projects are available again, which are a welcome thing to collectors. They also
are producing some replacement assemblies, like for replacing old Nixie tube displays with
LEDs (of course most people would probably rather have replacement Nixie tubes). Back in the
1970s, before everything we bought was assembled in far away lands using pseudo-slave labor,
it was often less expensive to buy a kit of parts and put together you own television or radio.
It was also an era when electronics service shops still did a brisk business fixing appliances,
and building such devices were part of the schooling process for up−and−coming
technicians. Every study−at−home electronics course included a color television,
AM/FM stereo, and even build−it−yourself oscilloscopes, among other items. As
Barney notes, there is something exciting to us nerds about opening a huge kit of
electronics components, cables, hardware, and chassis parts.
Mac's Service Shop: Philosophy of a Kit Manufacturer
By John T. Frye, W9EGV, KHD4167
When Barney entered the service department, still
shivering a bit from the bleak, cold November morning, he found Mac, his employer, thumbing
through the pages of a catalog.
"Hey, you've got a new Heathkit catalog!" the youth exclaimed. "How come I don't have mine?"
"Rank has its privileges," Mac replied with a teasing grin. "This came sort of special
delivery when Gene, my old friend with the Heath Company, dropped in for a short visit last
evening and left it."
"I suppose you two went at it hammer and tongs as usual," Barney said. "I can just hear
you nit-picking the assembly instructions for the last kit you put together that didn't work
perfectly the first time you turned it on, and I can hear Gene countering with scornful remarks
about crusty old service technicians who never really learned how to make a decent solder
joint and who stubbornly refuse to follow clear step-by-step instruction in the manual."
"You must have been listening," Mac chuckled reminiscently. "But then we settled down and
Gene gave me a lot of information on the painstaking steps that are taken to see to it that
a Heathkit is as error-free and fool-proof - both in design and in the instruction manual
- as possible before it is put on the market. I think you, or anyone else who ever put a kit
together, will find this interesting."
"I'm all ears," Barney invited, settling himself comfortably on the end of the service
"Okay, after an engineering design has been frozen - I hate that barbarism 'finalized'
- it is turned over to the Manual Department for publications treatment. The Manual Department
gets six sets of parts and an operating prototype of the kit. Using these, the author of the
manual evolves a general building procedure and step-by-step sequence. He strives to simplify
wiring, to avoid redundancy of parts, to arrange complex wiring in proper layers, and to avoid
more than four soldered connections to a single point. This last, of course, is to avoid rosin
joints or the possibility bottom wires will stack up unsoldered because heat from the iron
does not reach them. Working in collaboration with the design engineer, the author actually
builds the kit, making careful handwritten notes of every procedure. After a preliminary check
this written material is turned over to a typist for initial typing.
Pre-Proofing and Proof-Building. "Next comes the pre-proof cycle. The design engineer and
the author build the kit from the author's notes. This brings to light many obvious errors
and spotlights a need for improvement in the sequence of several steps. After these corrections
and modifications have been included in the written instructions, the kit is ready for the
"The instructions are reproduced on a Xerox machine, and a proof-build program is scheduled
involving 18 to 20 people, depending on the complexity of the kit. These proof-builders represent
a cross-section of capable engineering people, marketing people, customer services people,
production and office personnel, and always one or two novices. A novice is defined as someone
who has never assembled a kit product before. By necessity these are always Heath employees,
and they are issued kits on a Friday afternoon to take home and assemble from the Xerox-prepared
instructions. If the kit is fairly complex, they may be allowed two weekends with the due
date on a Monday morning; but quite often the proof-builds are due back on the Monday following
the Friday they were issued.
"As these people assemble their kits, they keep track of their time and are encouraged
to write their comments directly in the 'manual' at the appropriate place where difficulty
was encountered or an error detected. If the kit does not perform correctly when completed,
the proof-builder is encouraged to try to locate and correct the trouble himself if he can;
but working or not, the proof-builds must be turned over to an evaluation engineering group
on the due date. This group is entirely separate from the engineering design group, and their
function is to see how well the completed kits perform - if they perform at all - and to determine
what is wrong if they will not work. Is the failure due to a defective component? To incorrect
assembly or wiring? To a manual error?
"Finally the proof-builders meet with the engineering evaluation group, and individual
experiences and suggestions are gone over in great detail to determine what changes, if any,
are needed. Sometimes a different value of component is recommended, or a supplier is required
to tighten up his quality control, or holes in the chassis must be changed, or instructions
need to be clarified. Out of all this information comes the data that formulates the final
pack, parts count, and final manual. Occasionally, however, when the proof-build corrections
and changes are excessive, the company may elect to hold a 'post-proof-build.' This is a second
proofing stage beyond the proof-build to verify that all the changes and corrections have
been caught in the final printing. This post-proof build usually involves only one or two
"Man, they ought to have all the bugs out by that time!" Barney exclaimed.
"They still don't take that for granted. As a final check, the tenth pack of the first
production run for the product is pulled off the line by quality control and built again to
make sure nothing has happened during the interim between engineering sign-off and the initial
production run. And the first production run is not shipped until completion and verification
of the production proof by quality control. Formal reports are required at each stage."
"Well, that explains why I am so often frustrated when I'm building a kit and think I've
finally caught them leaving out an essential part or shorting me on hardware or making a goof
in the manual. Invariably the missing item shows up tucked away in some obscure corner of
the carton or in one of the sacks I've discarded as empty; and the glaring mistake in the
manual turns out to be a mistake in my careless reading of it."
"Know what you mean," Mac nodded. "It's sort of like the bitter-sweet feeling you have
when your checkbook won't agree with the bank statement and you're practically sure the bank
has finally made an error; but then, on the tenth review, you discover a subtraction error
in your checkbook."
''I'll bet you gave Gene a lot of Why Dontcha's," Barney hazarded.
Kit Philosophy of the Company. "Naturally," Mac said with a grin. "But he knocked them
down as fast as I tossed them up. Out of my suggestions and his patient explanations of why
the ideas were not practical, I think I acquired some insight into the 'kit philosophy' of
the company. I believe the same philosophy applies to any other kit instrument manufacturer
who puts out quality products.
"First is the idea nothing should be done for the builder that he can do well for himself.
Doing so increases the cost of the kit and deprives the builder of much of the pride he has
in the finished product. If wires are cut to length, sub-assemblies are all put together,
and instructions are obviously written for a seven-year-old, the labor involved in doing all
this will add very materially to the cost of the kit, since labor is a major item in the cost
of any product these days. At the same time, the builder will be made to feel the manufacturer
is holding his wrists at every step of the assembly, and this will subtract materially from
any feeling of personal accomplishment. Money saved by allowing the builder to furnish as
much labor as possible and by assuming he is an intelligent human being can be spent to improve
the quality of the kit instrument while still keeping its price below that of an inferior
"Makes sense," Barney agreed. "Sometimes I gripe and growl when I encounter a tedious procedure
in a kit assembly (preparing lengths of coaxial cable, for instance) but I get the job done;
and I certainly would not want to pay some high-priced worker to do it for me. After all,
the average kit builder is very likely a special breed who really enjoys putting kits together.
He doesn't buy a kit instrument just because it costs less than a comparable assembled unit.
He savors every moment of the assembly from the time he opens the carton, sniffs that indescribable
aroma of new insulation and lacquer, and catches his first peek at the exciting colors and
shapes of still-unrecognized items, until he proudly peels the backing from the little blue
model label and presses it against the chassis. He has watched something grow entirely under
his own hands from a jumbled mess of parts to an attractive, reliable device."
"Spoken like a real aficionado!" Mac said. "But whether or not a person assembles or uses
kit instruments, I strongly feel he and the entire electronic industry owe a debt to kit manufacturers.
They have made it possible for many service technicians, experimenters, and radio amateurs
to purchase and become familiar with equipment they could not otherwise afford. Many a small
shop opens for business with a service bench full of Heathkit or other manufacturers' kit-type
instruments. Then as the business prospers and the technician's time becomes more valuable,
he tends to purchase assembled replacement instruments. I'll bet if you could get the figures,
you'd find kit instrument manufacturers really have helped the sale of all instrument manufacturers.
"Yeah," Barney agreed. "Many a person enters the electronics field by the act of putting
together a simple kit. Once he learns he can wire a bunch of parts together and make an instrument
that really works, he is hooked for life. 'Who says electronics is black magic?' he asks himself
as he signs up for a correspondence course in electronics or heads for an engineering course
"Speaking of education," Mac concluded, "I've always admired the kit manufacturers' efforts
in this area. They try to tell the builder not only how to assemble the instrument but also
why it works as it does. Every manual has a 'Circuit Description' section. Heath's color-TV
receiver manuals include what is actually an excellent short course in color-TV theory and
practice. I consider this most commendable."
Posted October , 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.