Title: The Color Television That Dad Built
Date Occurred: Mostly 1972 through 1975, with sections from various other times.
Date Written: May 18, 2005
Date Prepared for Web Site: April 26, 2019
Written by: Joel T. Kant
Copyright (c) 2019 by Joel T. Kant
Some time in 2004, my wife Holly sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. She muttered about something being a huge amount of time. Putting down the section that I had been reading, I asked, “What’s a lot of time?”
She explained that an article gave the number of hours the average American child watches television every day. The number was so large that in many households the television must be on while people are simultaneously doing other tasks. Holly and I are so atypical in our viewing habits that it is un-American! Neither of us has ever seen one episode of most current prime-time shows.
I suggested, “Having cable or satellite might entice people to watch more.”
What stations our televisions receive come from antennas. That provides about eight strong stations. This is trivial compared to those who have cable where there might be a hundred or more.
“Although not nearly as many hours as that article claims, I watched a fair amount of television when I was young,” I admitted regretfully. “I didn’t believe I watched much until I went to University of Wisconsin-Platteville. I had no television. The dorm had one television in the main lobby and another by the coin-operated washing machines in the basement. That was it for a five-story building. Students were almost watching shows on those that I didn’t care to see. I had such a sense of anxiety at certain times. I felt like I was bouncing off the walls. I realized those were times I used to watch television. After about a month, those feelings finally faded. I never went back to watching television like I used to.”
Holly said, “Our family did not even get a color television until I was thirteen.”
This was news to me. I had not known Holly as a child because I was born and grew up many states away from Ohio.
I said, “I was about nine when we got ours. It was a special color television because Dad built it.”
Holly wondered aloud, “How does one build a color television?”
I replied, “A company called Heathkit made kits to assemble stereos, radios, computers, and many other things. They made a kit for a color television too. The kits were slightly cheaper than buying the pre-built item. Building them taught the builder about electronics. The company went out of business some years ago.”
This conversation made me think back to the Heathkit color television that Dad made. Dad tends to become fascinated in certain things. He will pursue them for a time with the intensity of a bulldog, but then his interests will change. For a time, he was interested in electronics. Unfortunately, I was too young when that happened to absorb much of it. By the time I was a teenager and interested in electronics myself, Dad no longer showed much interest in it. I kept going to the neighbor Donald Spaulding for help with my electronics projects instead.
The Heathkit color television was the successful climax and end of Dad’s interest in electronics. It was not his first project, though. Using about a twenty-five inch diameter speaker, some plywood, and a filter of perhaps a capacitor or inductor and resistor, he had put together a bass speaker. It was the size of an endtable. A blanket was thrown over it, so it seemed an ordinary endtable. A small wooden radio was put on it. Dad still has this all these years later. Some people when they heard the radio play did a double take. The sound was so rich and full from what seemed just a small radio on an endtable that it seemed nearly miraculous. Only when the cloth was lifted and the massive speaker could be seen was the reason for the rich sound understood.
In a magazine, Dad found the schematic to build a circuit to let any radio receive Muzak. Muzak is a company name, but its main product is pop music that is softened and the lyrics left out. It is often played in stores, where it is somehow supposed to encourage buying. It is often derisively called elevator music. Dad built a circuit that let his radio receive Muzak. There is a little switch in the back of the radio that activates it.
Demonstrating Muzak could be received had been fun for Dad. He liked to show people that his radio could do that. Nobody listened to it for long, though. Not even Dad did that. Muzak gets painful to listen to in an amazingly short time.
Neither the Muzak nor the large speaker came from kits. However, then Dad got various Heathkits. One was for an oscilloscope, which he never built, but I some years later built and got working. Another was for a stereo amplifier, which he built but as far as I know never worked properly. The largest kit was for the television.
I am only guessing at the year, but I think it was around 1972 when he built the color television. It involved many days of working with a complicated wiring bundle and a soldering iron. I think I was around nine years old. For me, that was too young to have much interest or understanding of the project. I regarded it in a similar fashion to when Mom would knit or crochet. I had no interest in knitting or crocheting myself, but accepted that Mom seemed to sometimes find it relaxing. For a time, Dad’s equivalent activity seemed to me to be working on the television.
After many weeks at it in his spare time, Dad finished the television. It worked! It had seemed so complicated that I had had my doubts. I think Mom had too.
For a boy of my age, having access to a color television was much more exciting than any hand knit sweater could ever be. My favorite show was Star Trek. Now, Captain Kirk’s shirt was yellow, Mr. Spock’s blue, and Scotty’s bright red.
The best thing I saw on the Heathkit color television was the movie “Wizard of Oz.” Unlike various classic Disney movies that I had seen in the theaters with my parents and siblings, that was a movie I had only seen on television. I had been told in school how it started out in black-and-white when Dorothy was in Kansas, but switched to color when she got to Oz. Prior to the Heathkit television, we had a nineteen-inch black-and-white Zenith television. Watching on that, both Kansas and Oz were only shades of gray, of course. On the new Heathkit, Oz was indeed in bright and cheerful colors!
For my siblings, all younger than I, the color was most welcome for Saturday morning cartoon shows. That was the time when the television was watched the most intently. There certainly is a big difference between seeing Bugs Bunny and his gang in color instead of black-and-white!
After perhaps two years, the Heathkit color television stopped working. The nineteen-inch screen black-and-white Zenith television in the basement still worked fine, so it was not that we suddenly could not watch any television whatsoever. After a couple years of color, it was a sad shock to watch in black-and-white.
Dad pulled all the vacuum tubes out of the Heathkit. He put all of them into a paper bag, using tissue paper to prevent them smashing against each other. Most people who remember when televisions had vacuum tubes rather than solid state electronics will remember this ritual.
I went with Dad as we went to Woolco department store. Dad carried his bag in. Nobody said a thing about bringing a bag into the store. We went to the electronics department where they had a vacuum tube tester.
I looked at the imposing, complicated machine. It had many turn knobs and a big push button. It had about a dozen different sockets that various types of vacuum tubes would fit in. A large swing dial gauge was on an upraised panel. The dial was white, but had areas marked in yellow and red. That this was in a department store rather than a specialized electronics store show how commonplace having to do tube testing was, but to me at the young age I was then, this looked like the control panel of a rocket ship. I figured Dad had to be as clever as Mr. Spock to use something this complicated.
“Please get out a tube,” Dad told me.
I took out a glass and metal tube. There was a bed of pins underneath. I held it gingerly, scared because it was glass that I might break it.
“Here,” I said, offering it.
Dad took it, turned it in his hands, and read the letters and numbers off it. He then flipped through a battered book that sat on top of the tube tester. Able to remember the numbers, he set the tube down flat on the instrument. As Dad did that, I picked the tube back up. I looked at the pattern of pins on the bottom, then at the sockets. I found a socket with the correct pattern of holes to match the pins. I put the tube in, and it fit. I grinned, feeling I had accomplished something.
Peering in the book, Dad said, “It doesn’t go there, Joel.”
He pulled the tube from where I placed it. Using a letter or number from the book, he put it in a different socket. It fit into that socket too! I had not realized that there was more than one socket it could fit.
Dad turned various knobs to the settings given in the book. He followed a good habit that I try to emulate, but often fail at do to laziness and rushing. He went back into the book, then confirmed the socket and every setting. Satisfied, he pushed a big button. The needle on the gauge swung slowly. It came to rest.
“This one’s good,” Dad informed me. “Let’s have the next.”
Dad let go of the button, then pulled the good tube out of the tester. As he did this, I extracted another tube. Dad then tested the next tube in the same manner.
On the third tube, the tester showed it was bad. Dad set that one aside.
“Let’s have the next tube, please,” Dad requested.
“Why? We just found the bad one,” I protested.
“There might be more than one that is bad,” Dad said.
I had not thought of that, even though it should have been obvious. I meekly got out the next tube and handed it over. All the other tubes tested out as good, but now Dad knew that rather than having only assumed it.
Dad then looked through racks filled with small cardboard boxes. He found a replacement for the bad tube. I asked how much it cost. Dad read off the price to me. Although I do not recall the amount, I do recall figuring out how many packets of candy I could get for that amount. It was over a dozen. To me, that was a lot of money.
I had a troubling thought, but did not voice it. Certain school kids bragged of shoplifting candy. The new tube in its cardboard box was not any bigger than a Milky Way chocolate bar so it would be easy to slip into a pocket, but worth more. We came in with a paper bag, so it could be slipped in there. Televisions have not had many small vacuum tubes like these in many, many years. If they did, though, I do not think a store today would let customers have easy access to the tubes like that. They certainly would not let customers wander the store with a paper bag! A cashier I know has to use a clear plastic purse, as do all the other employees, because management thinks that will stop stealing.
Dad put all the old tubes back in the paper bag. He took the bag and the new tube in its box to the cashier, where he paid for it.
When we got home, I watched anxiously as Dad put all the tubes back in the television. He put the back on, then inserted the antenna and power cords. He turned the set on. It sprang to life. The color image was back! I was thrilled. To me, using the tube-testing machine had seemed so complicated, but it must have been so much more difficult to build the Heathkit television in the first place.
A year or so went by. Many hundreds of hours of television had been watched on the Heathkit. It broke again. I was not with Dad when he tested the tubes this time. I had confidently expected him to perform his magic once more.
When Dad got home, he explained that all the tubes had tested out as good. Dad brought the black-and-white Zenith television upstairs. He took the Heathkit downstairs to his workshop. He searched in the bookshelf until he found the plans and schematic that he had used when he had put the Heathkit color television the first time. This seemed like a much more serious problem than having a tube go bad.
Days passed. Although the black-and-white television was there, it was watched much less than the color television had been. My siblings and I were edgy, not knowing what to do with the hours freed up by not watching much television.
Mom not very sympathetically told us, “Go read a book.”
When Dad got home from work, he suggested that it would be healthier to play outside then watch television anyway. He was correct, but I certainly did not like hearing that advice.
Dad then announced that he thought he had found the problem in the television, but was not completely sure. He said it seemed in the tuner.
I asked, “What’s a tuner?”
Dad explained that it was the mechanism behind the channel changer knob. He showed it to me. There were copper contacts acting as switches and little gears that were engaged when the fine tuning knob was turned. These gears moved little shafts.
Dad announced that although he had built this set himself, he was now going to bring it to a television repair shop. It seemed a humbling concession. Rather than being sympathetic, my siblings and I were delighted! I optimistically felt that the professionals would fix the color television nearly instantly. Starting my teenage years by then, I guess I had lost faith in Dad’s repair abilities even if he had built the set originally.
The color television was not back the next day or the next. A week or more passed. I found I was following Mom’s advice by reading far more books than before.
After a seeming eternity of days had passed, Dad came home with the television in the back of his blue van. I was thrilled, thinking we would be watching color television again in a few minutes.
However, Dad did not carry the television into the living room. He brought it in the basement to his workshop. I wondered what that was about.
Dad explained that he had been correct about the tuner. Heathkit no longer made this kit anymore. The repair shop could not get an equivalent replacement to put in.
Dad then heard pleas to buy a brand new color television. It was not just from us greedy, television-addicted children. Even Mom suggested it was time to get a new one. Dad refused.
A couple days later, Dad took the Zenith black-and-white television back to the basement. With a triumphant look, he brought the Heathkit back to the living room. As he hooked it back up to the antenna and power outlet, I noted a large ring of shiny epoxy around the channel-changing knob. Dad powered up the set. It worked once again! He had fixed it!
I was very impressed. Dad then explained that the problem was not so much electrical as mechanical.
As I recall, that repair lasted for nearly a year. Then, the television went out again. Again, it was not the vacuum tubes, but the tuner. However, it was a different problem with the tuner. Dad explained there was corrosion in the contacts. He used a spray can that spurted some liquid to get it going again. This repair worked, but not for long. Sprayed once more, it stopped working in only a few days.
Dad finally gave up. My parents bought a brand new color television. Although less than a year from when the tuner went out the first time when Mom and the rest of us had urged him to do just that, it still seemed a victory of sorts for Dad to have it work that extra time.
Although not a kit, the new television eventually had problems too. Dad would do his own testing of the many vacuum tubes, but if he did not find a bad one, the set went in to the repair shop. Dad invariably complained about how much that cost.
Following that routine, the years flew by with the television working most of that time and quickly repaired when it failed. As the years passed, other than the cathode ray tube itself that is really a very large vacuum tube, the other vacuum tubes disappeared from the televisions. The solid state circuitry generally worked far longer. The type of mechanically complicated tuner that Dad had struggled with on the Heathkit disappeared too, being replaced with electronic tuners with quartz crystals to lock in the frequencies. Modern televisions do not have fine tuning control. At some point, my parents got one of those solid state sets with quartz crystal tuner.
As the long-term reliability of televisions shot up and television repair shops closed in droves all across the nation, the price of televisions plummeted. Replacement parts became nearly impossible to get. Today, I would not even think of doing much to repair a nineteen-inch diagonal measure color television. I would simply replace it. Dad’s Heathkit belonged to another era in more ways than one. Few people can truthfully claim they built a working color television, but my Dad can. At least I can claim to have built a working oscilloscope, but that is another story.
Back to Joel Kant Home Page: Joel Kant Home Page.