Vintage Radio & TV: Repairing and Building Things…Yourself!

Telefixit_ARummaging through some old files from my father, I came across this gem from 1953 and immediately recognized a great blog-post opportunity! Yes, there once was a time when any sufficiently motivated (and clever/handy) individual could actually troubleshoot things like radios and televisions. Those WERE the days – a time when life was simpler and technology was not totally beyond the grasp of 99 per-cent of the general population.

Today, auto repair is the identical twin to radio/TV repair – well beyond our reach, and residing only in the realm of trained, technical specialists. There is one glaring difference between the two twins, however: Can you guess what that is? The time/money aspect of specialized, technical know-how today renders electronic repair largely pointless. In today’s world, replacing electronic “somethings” is almost always cheaper (and more convenient) than repairing them. The same cannot be said of the automobile – for sure.

The universal image of a greasy pair of overalls protruding from the underbelly of a vintage car being repaired on one’s driveway is long-gone from the auto scene, along with the image of smiling, uniformed Texaco service station attendants swooping in to offer full service on your car as you pull-in for a fill-up.

Repairing Your TV Set Could Kill You!

Really? Even if you first unplug the set before working on it? Yes, especially back then when TV screens were of the high voltage, cathode-ray tube variety. In those days, large electronic capacitors were used to store electrical energy for powering these picture tubes. They could retain thousands of volts of electric charge even though the set was turned off or unplugged. Do-it-yourself manuals took great pains to point out the dangers and to explain how these devices could be safely discharged before working on the set!

Radio – TV Repair Shops: Extinct Dinosaurs;
Today’s Throw-away Society

Radio & TV Repair ShopThese shops, with their signs out front, were once ubiquitous. Today, they are gone because repairing any but the more valuable vintage electronics is largely a fool’s errand today – it just does not make economic sense. The reality is that today’s consumer electronics is a huge factor in our “throw-away” society. Not only is repair not economically feasible, the aggressive “newer/better” syndrome which characterizes today’s electronic devices (especially phones and computers) obsoletes most devices long before they ever need repair!

A Related Point: Why Jobs are Lost
 and the Labor Force Transformed

Although my post has a sentimental ring to it, it serves to showcase a serious aspect of societal change – specifically, the shift from manual labor in manufacturing to high-tech know-how. Here is how the chassis-guts of a television set looked some sixty years ago:

GE_RF_Chassis_New[1]

This tangle of electronic components – primarily vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, and inductors – was hand-soldered together on an assembly line comprised of a small army (mainly women) who sequentially added each piece until the whole assembly was complete. This approach was both time consuming and very labor-intensive (semi-skilled labor). Today, that long assembly line is completely replaced by robotic assemblers which pick, place, and solder components to a so-called “surface-mount” printed circuit board with designated pad positions for every part connection to the board. All wire connections between parts are replaced by thin metallic traces on the board which connect the components. Fabrication/assembly costs are much less than the old hand-wired approach while quality/reliability is exponentially better with the new technology. Individual components known as “integrated circuits” are highly dense groupings of microscopic components (multiple thousands of transistors, resistors, and capacitors) all on one single semiconductor “chip.” These circuits are identifiable by the multiple “leads” on the package. No wonder the radio – TV repairman could not keep up with the burgeoning technology!

circuit-board[1]

The money formerly paid to those armies of semi-skilled assemblers is now funneled to the relatively few highly educated, skilled and gifted engineers who designed the process and its robotic equipment. This money/job transfer away from lots of manual (often union) labor is inevitable in manufacturing facilities – a key reason for the unemployment and the sinking fortunes of the semi-skilled middle class, today.

The Heathkit Era: Build Your
Own Electronic Equipment

Heathkit VTVM_CROPI still have two pieces of electronic equipment that I built myself from the Heath Company’s famous electronic kits. All parts and detailed, step-by-step assembly instructions were provided. “Heathkits” were lab-quality and were very popular from the nineteen-fifties through the eighties. When I was working on my Masters Degree in electrical engineering in the late sixties, I built one of their biggest kits – a full-blown, vacuum tube, lab-quality oscilloscope. I sold that long ago, but I still have the vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM) and the small solid-state (transistorized) power supply that I built long ago.

When you built a Heathkit and could read an electrical schematic, you pretty-well understood the guts of your equipment and how it worked. Not so much in today’s world, however, thanks to the miracle of integrated circuits, etc. It was a wonderful time, in a way, because it was a simpler time – a time when technology was still within the reach of a determined grasp. Whenever we visit our good friends, Dave and Patti, down in Santa Barbara, Dave inevitably offers me my coffee in his well-used mug with the simple brown “Heathkit” lettering. He, too, recalls those old days, and we reminisce a bit.

Heathkit VTVM Manual  Heathkit VTVM Instr

Radio and Radio Repair – A Family Heritage

My father and his family had an early relationship with radio. My grandfather, Elmer, operated a small radio repair shop on Diversey Avenue in Chicago in the nineteen forties and the early fifties.

Elmer & Martha Kubitz, 1947 _A

Elmer’s wife, Martha, had a small toy and candy store in the adjacent, connected space to the repair shop. The picture is a rare family photo (circa 1948 – the year my dad was transferred to California) of the two of them at Elmer’s front counter. In the background is a small selection of boxed vacuum tubes. A large shop would have had a much bigger stock/selection. Their joint radio/candy enterprise barely paid the bills for them, and I recall that they lived in rather dark surroundings behind the curtains visible in Elmer’s storefront, here. Theirs was a “mom and pop” business venture if ever there was one! I am very sad that we have so few pictures of my grandparents.

My father got his feet wet in radio as a young man by dropping by to help his dad in the shop on occasion. My dad was particularly good at restringing troublesome “dial cords” which connected the radio’s guts with the station tuning dial. In 1942, Dad left Schwinn bicycles and went to work in the Radio Lab at United Air Lines. A heart murmur kept him out of wartime service, but he completed an extensive radio course at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1944.

Dad's IIT Radio Diploma

I still have several of his early radio textbooks – one with a gift inscription from his young wife, my mother:

“To the finest husband in the world, and may he reach every goal he strives for.”

                         “Alice”

A New Workplace and a Changing Society; The “Two Faces” of Technology

Two Faces   002

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time may be aware of my background as a Silicon Valley (California) electrical engineer (retired). You may also realize from previous posts that I view technology as a dual-edged sword which can cut both ways – for good and for bad. On the “good” side of the ledger, are the obvious benefits, both real and potential, that technology brings to our lives….and to our spirits when judiciously used. The “bad” side will be determined by us individually and collectively as we merge technology ever more into our lives while struggling to reconcile it with our basic humanity. Our decisions on both the personal and the societal levels regarding technology’s role will affect us immensely. In fact, we have now reached a pivotal point in that process.

The “Middle-Class” As We Have Known It
 Is An Endangered Species!

Reading a book review in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal inspired this post, but only because the subject has long been on my mind. The book is titled Average Is Over and purportedly states that American society is headed toward a dual-class reality with an elite 10-15% at the top and the rest in an “underfunded future of lower economic expectations, shantytowns and an endless diet of beans” according to the reviewer. Those at the top will be the high-achievers, the self-motivated ones who largely embrace technology and can adapt to its demands. Those at the bottom will be everyone else! In essence, the middle-class as we have known it disappears.

It appears to me that we are headed in that direction – due largely to the influence of technology. Long-gone is the widespread need for unskilled labor as exemplified by a union worker in Detroit whose only responsibility was bolting-on automobile rear-view mirrors for $25 an hour and excellent benefits. Replacing legions of such workers, today, is a two-tiered, much smaller team of workers: robotics engineers who design robots to do such jobs and tech-skilled workers who can monitor and maintain the complex machinery of the robots themselves. The ultimate cost-savings in high-volume production lines such as those in the automotive industry is staggering – and quality improves as well.

Many former hourly factory workers find themselves unemployed today; their prospects for good wages and benefits in today’s society look bleak – unless they have the motivation, capability, and opportunity to go back to school and acquire the higher-tech skills that today’s workplace needs, indeed demands.

Henry Ford pioneered mass-production with his Model T Ford assembly lines beginning in 1908. The new methods he introduced were based initially more on common-sense logistics (time-motion studies) than on advanced manufacturing technologies, yet the die was cast and manufacturing along with the workplace has been changing ever since. Tom Friedman, the noted columnist, commentator, and author has written extensively on the evolving workplace and its effects on society. He would be the first to endorse the importance of technology in the workplace.

Despite technology’s rapid pace, it has taken a while for us to reach this point in time, the point at which technology’s promise of cheaper mass-produced goods of superior quality and functionality critically impacts the employment fabric of our society. Even though we have just now arrived at that critical juncture, technology has had an evolving influence on product manufacturing and the work force for some time. The semiconductor industry has relied on very sophisticated production automation almost from its inception some 50 years ago.

When I was designing computer disk-drives in the late 1990’s, here in Silicon Valley, California, I spent time at our factory in Japan. Even then, the automated assembly lines could turn out 10,000 of those technically-sophisticated memory storage devices a day! When you scanned the vast assembly-line area, you saw only an occasional human being visible over the humming conveyer lines. Aside from the economies of manufacturing such volumes, the argument is easily made that robotics was the only alternative to insure the uniform accuracy and quality required.

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One humorous aspect of our factory in Japan was the way disk-drive assemblies were transported to other stations within the plant. As we walked through the factory isles, we had to be constantly aware of the little “robot-pallets” passing us by, busily moving themselves (except for computer control) from station to station within the plant by following a flat metallic strip on the floor. It was intriguing, almost comedic to watch a robot-pallet turn into a shipping area with a load of completed drives and begin to unload them onto the shipping racks for packaging – totally without direct human assistance! All of this took place over fifteen years ago; manufacturing technology has certainly not stood still since then!

Charlie Chaplin made a prophetic, satirical feature film in 1935 called Modern Times in which he acts and satirically spoofs the onset of the mechanical age of manufacturing and its effect on workers. The film has many funny and outlandish situations which bring to mind the robot pallets in Japan which I described. Who’s in control here!

The Reality Today

This is the reality of our industrial society today. I am led to believe that the middle-class in this country is an endangered species and that the impact of technology will continue to grow. The increasing flow of capital into the most affluent 15% of our population will increase unabated. I see this as very troubling. I cannot envision a happy and economically successful society in which 15% live an affluent lifestyle while the other 85% experience something well-below the heretofore accepted middle-class existence in this country. In addition to the great job opportunities open to the technically proficient in the society, there will be opportunities for talented craftsmen, accomplished musicians and artists, and others with significant niche skills to do well.

The vast numbers of hourly workers being put out of work by automation technology today along with future job-seekers who are shut out by the demands of a technical education will have a difficult road ahead. So will the rest who are not sufficiently motivated to retrain – to embrace technology, or to excel in the niche skills mentioned above. Gone forever are the formerly ubiquitous 8-5 time-clock, union factory jobs which paid well in wages and benefits.

A Caution: Retirement for Future Employees

Generous government, union, and private-sector pensions are now declining or non-existent. That is a problem middle-class hourly workers often did not need to face. Even talented, future tech-industry professionals who can look forward to jobs with good salaries face a three-tiered problem: Overseas outsourcing, technical obsolescence, and retirement. It is very difficult to keep pace with technology, and future engineering candidates would be well-advised to prepare to refresh their knowledge-base several times over during their careers. To remain gainfully employed with a good salary after age sixty in today’s engineering environment is, indeed, quite a feat – and there never were many company pensions for retired engineers.

Life will be harder for most, and I indeed worry about the society as a whole. Are we ready and capable to deal with the situation? Don’t count on Congress to be of much help; the outcome is going to be determined by choices made at the grass-roots level, person by person.

Author/historian David McCullough has noted that people have been claiming for decades that the country was going to hell, and the fact that it seems so now to some people is nothing new. However, I do think the country and its society will be quite different in the years to come due to the prevailing winds. Fasten your seat-belts.