I miss Heathkits.

Heathkits were those wonderful, do-it-yourself electronics packages that including everything but a soldering iron. When electronics – especially audio electronics – contained mostly discrete components, purchasing a kit was a great way to get a better audio system for the same amount of money, and you could learn a lot, too. My college stereo receiver still cranks out 100 watts of clean sound per channel.

With the advent of integrated electronics and surface-mount technology, manufacturing costs for consumer electronics plummeted, kits were no long economical and the Heath Company essentially went under. They still exist but they are a mere shadow of their former selves and are no longer a prominent company; they have gone the way of buggy whips.

I bemoan the loss, because the field of electronics has become sterile. It is not a place for 10 or 12-year-old scientist wannabes to play. Heathkits and similar kits from Allied and Dynaco were great childhood stimulants for these burgeoning fields, and I’m sure that many high school students made electrical engineering their career path because of them. Today, the complexity of integrated electronics and the knowledge required to build even the simplest of systems limits one’s ability to make this a hobby before making it a career. Hence, one more reason why engineers – especially good ones – are hard to come by. That’s okay for me and my generation, as the law of supply and demand will continue to provide us few engineers with very good salaries for a long time to come.

But that’s not what this blog entry is about. It’s about Benton Harbor, Michigan, the birthplace of the Heath Company. Benton Harbor is a poor, mostly African-American community on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan – on the opposite side of the state from Detroit – that has seen better days. Both the Heath Company and Whirlpool, headquartered there, have shrunk in size over the years, and unemployment in the town is relatively high. Benton Harbor was also home to a series of riots in 2003 initiated by the death of a black motorcyclist trying to evade the police. The city has been battered by factory closings, white flight, rising unemployment and apparent inattention by the state of Michigan.

If any of this sounds familiar it’s because I think of Benton Harbor as Michigan’s Buffalo. The two cities have a lot in common (as do the two states); only Buffalo is much bigger. But because it’s bigger, it stands a greater chance of being heard, of recovering from the burdens of over-taxation followed by years of neglect. I think Buffalo’s bankruptcy and the dominance of the Fiscal Review Board may be giving the city a glimmer of hope. Governor Elliot Spitzer’s early interest in this region seems to be helping as well (I hope it continues). In discussions with everyone from Andrew Rudnick of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to many friends in small business, I’m beginning to see growth in business diversity – we’re not just a blue-collar town anymore. We are starting to rise from the ashes of the steel mills.

Renaissance is cool. I think this area is on the cusp of something big.

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