Gear Stories With Sylvia Massy: The Spirit of American Gadgetry

Sep 21, 2010 7:11 PM, By Sylvia Massy

HAND-CRAFTED IMAGINATION

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Ed Heath’s airplane fell apart in mid-air, killing him as it disintegrated. It was 1931, and Heath had been riding on the wings of the American industrial revolution with his line of build-your-own airplanes. His death could have been the end of our story right there, but instead it was a new beginning for American ingenuity. So what the heck does a failed prop plane from the 1930s have in common with a modern, modular analog synthesizer? In this case, they were both built from do-it-yourself kits.

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It was soon after the Wright Brothers first got off the ground that Edward Bayard Heath started his company, tapping into Americans’ need to do their own thing. Early airplanes were expensive, but you could build your own from Heath’s kit for around $500, and it was (reportedly) a pretty nice one at that! After Heath’s death, the “Heathkit” company continued, becoming a successful manufacturer of more “grounded” build-it-yourself gadgets. In the 1950s, the company had great success offering oscilloscope kits for a fraction of what a prebuilt ’scope cost at the time, and with a flood of WWII surplus electronic parts on the market, Heathkit concentrated on offering budget-minded electronic kits to consumers. Each kit came with a detailed manual and color-coded parts. You did not need formal training to make a Heathkit—just a few simple tools.

A stack of PAiA 4700 synthesizer modules, wired up and ready to go

A stack of PAiA 4700 synthesizer modules, wired up and ready to go

STEVE JOBS' FIRST WORKBENCH
In 1995, Steve Jobs, co-founder/CEO of Apple, described how Heathkit projects inspired him in his early years in an interview with Daniel Morrow for the Smithsonian Institute: “…It gave one an understanding of what was inside a finished product and how it worked because it would include a theory of operation, but maybe even more importantly, it gave one the sense that one could build the things that one saw around oneself in the universe. These things were not mysteries anymore. I mean, you looked at a television set, and you would think, ‘I haven’t built one of those but I could. There’s one of those in the Heathkit catalog and I’ve built two other Heathkits, so I could build that.’ Things became much more clear that they were the results of human creation, not these magical things that just appeared in one’s environment that one had no knowledge of their interiors. It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence.”






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