By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — Bill Johnson was a time machine Wednesday night, as he took audience members through five eras worth of history with his storytelling.
The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center played host to a packed room with more than 100 attendees, while showcasing the history of a famous Twin Cities business – the Heath Co.
Johnson, a former Heath president, gave a brief history of the business he spent 30 years with and provided a few tales from behind closed doors.
During the last half of the 20th century, people across the globe were assembling their own electronic equipment from kits created by the company with headquarters in Benton Harbor along Territorial Road, which would later move to Hilltop Road in St. Joseph. Johnson began his presentation from the business’ founding as an airplane company to the makers of kits ranging from simple radios to some of the earliest computers.
Heathkit began in 1925 when Edward Heath founded the Heath Airplane Co. in Chicago. While the company would become something completely different from what Heath imagined, Johnson said the business would have been nothing without its founder.
“His dream was to develop a plane that was affordable for everyone,” Johnson said. “He soon designed it to be done in kit form and tested his first plane called ‘The Baby Bullet.'”
After Heath died in 1931 in a Baby Bullet crash, the company was bought by Howard Anthony, who moved operations to Benton Harbor. Heath prospered through the World War II production years, but after military contracts dried up, Anthony searched for a new direction for the company’s development.
Through the purchase of a surplus of electronic parts in 1947, Anthony created the first Heathkit – the O1 oscilloscope – which consumers went crazy over.
“The kit was on sale for an incredible price of $39.95 – a fraction of what a new oscilloscope would normally cost, which was about $400-500,” Johnson said. “There were over 250 orders the first week and they kept coming. The first Heathkit was born.”
By 1962, there were more than 200 Heathkits for products ranging from transistor radios and stereo receivers to color televisions and robots. Heathkit developed an international following. People across the globe ordered kits through Heath catalogs or bought them in-person at retail stores.
Johnson proved to be a good moderator, keeping the audience laughing with stories from when he first joined Heath after being let go by Whirlpool Corp. and almost being coerced to work in Chicago for Brunswick.
Museum curator Mollie Kruck said they have been working on getting the program together for a couple of months, which included tracking down past employees and a few items made by the company for showcase purposes. Stationed along the walls near the front of the room were Heath products ranging from a 29-inch box television to the HERO 1 Robot.
Kruck said they had been trying to look at more programs related to industries in the area when the museum’s executive director came across Johnson and his impressive memory.
“We ended up talking with him, and he was happy to do the program,” Kruck said. “We quickly realized there was a ton of interest in the Heath Company and Heathkits in general. Normally our public programs get about 50 or 60 people, so to see this many people here in one night is awesome.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 20, 2015)