Monday, July 20, 2015

The Benton Harbor Lunchbox

The Heath Company was founded in 1926, initially making aircraft and then more famously making radio and electronic kits from 1947 to 1992.  The company didn't close as some sources reported, but did file for  bankruptcy in 2012. The company was restructured, and continues to operate on a small scale, selling parts and kits on eBay.

The first Heath kit was a do-it-yourself oscilloscope that cost $50. Even in 1947 that was a good price for an oscilloscope and it was a big seller. They marketed kits for audiophiles, hacks, hams, amateurs and engineers, even one kit for a full size Thomas electric organ. It was a phenomena that tapped into an early vein of technical geekery. Their instructions were thorough on a level that would embarrass IKEA today.  Other electronics companies like Radio Shack, Lafayette and Allied,  all also marketed kits. but Heath kits were top notch. They remained on top until they were bought by Zenith in 1979 mostly for their then nascent computer kits. More here and here.

The Heath kit lunch box was a phenomena inside a phenomena. For many years Heath was based in Benton Harbor Michigan. So when they began making squarish radios in the 1950s, about the size of a lunch box, with a handle on top... they got nicknamed "Lunch boxes" or Benton Harbor Lunch Boxes. These are beloved by collectors.purists might argue that the "real" lunch boxes were 2, 6 and 10-meter band radio kits
 marketed from 1961 to 1967. They were affectionately called the "twoer", "sixer", and "tener". But the lunch box chassis goes back almost to the very beginning.

In truth that first Heathkit in 1947 had a handle on top. But it was taller than it was wide. It wasn't very lunchbox-like. But in 1948 they debuted some test equipment: a RF signal generator model G-1, the Condenser Checker model C-1, and that Signal Tracer, model T-1. [SOURCE] These definitely had the right shape. But it was only those early 1960s transceivers were actually marketed by Heathkit as 'lunch boxes."