Sunday, March 09, 2014
Radio Shack: Thanks For The Memories
When leather-hobby-store owner Charles Tandy bought an anemic chain of nine radio-parts retail stores in Massachusetts for only $300,000 in 1963, he had a vision for what he could do with the brand. The embodiment of that vision began when he opened the first Radio Shack store outside of New England on West Seventh Street in Fort Worth, Texas. Among the crowds of customers who flocked into the new store to see the latest in stereos and electronics hobby products was a small boy with a burr haircut and an expression on his face that would lead one to believe he thought he had died and gone to Heaven. That was me.
Any institution that attracts people to the field of engineering is doing good, at least in my engineering ethics book. And over the past five decades, I would venture to guess that the huge international chain of Radio Shack stores has fostered the careers of more electrical engineers than any government program sponsored by the likes of the National Science Foundation. It appears that the Shack's glory days are over, judging by last week's announcement that the firm is shedding about 1100 of its nearly 5200 U. S. locations. For the last several years, I have sadly watched the slow decline of a firm that grew along with the cohort of electronics hobbyists who came to maturity in the 1960s and 70s and went on to revolutionize much of modern life.
The phenomenon of a hobby activity becoming a matter of urgent national interest happens fairly rarely. It happened during World War II when a critical need for radio operators who knew Morse Code and radio technology led defense recruiters to the ranks of amateur radio operators, who excelled in both. And one of the leading suppliers of equipment and parts to radio hams back then was the Radio Shack store of Boston, Massachusetts, named after the customary naval term for a ship's radio room.
For various reasons, the company fell on hard times during the 1950s, but leather-goods entrepreneur Tandy had the foresight, or good luck, to perceive that there was a big future in retail electronics when he bought the chain in 1963. The success of the first new store in Fort Worth under Tandy's ownership led to a growing number of stores nationwide, and pretty soon anyone in a mid-size U. S. city no longer had to rely on slow mail ordering from catalogs to get a wide variety of electronics parts and kits, including tubes for the notoriously unreliable TV sets of the era.
If every dollar I've ever spent at Radio Shack had been invested in stocks instead, I'd probably be richer financially, but infinitely poorer intellectually. As I'm sure is the case with thousands of electrical engineers of my generation, the electronics hobby that the local Radio Shack made possible for me turned into a career. And up through at least 2000, Radio Shack was the first place I thought of whenever I needed ordinary electronics parts.
But time goes on. While the Shack entered the field of personal computers very early, in 1977 with the historic TRS-80, they missed the chance to become an established player in the field. Since then, electronics has become so sophisticated and complex that very few people outside the classroom actually build electronic circuits for fun anymore (and maybe not for fun in the classroom, either). This complexity is a good thing for electronics consumers, but it has ended the golden age of the hobby. At its peak, a teenager with a soldering iron and a set of plans could turn out anything you could buy off the shelf from a store, ranging from a crystal radio to a color TV (the last with the aid of another company from a bygone era, Heathkit).
Teaching electrical engineering as I do, I have the opportunity to learn how students today become interested in the field. While I have not taken any scientific surveys on the matter, my impression is that most of our students don't narrow down their career choice until they get to college, where electrical engineering appeals to them as a profession that combines interesting work with a reasonably good chance of getting a job after graduation. The ones who tinkered with electronics in high school or earlier are relatively rare, but stand out for their superior ability to do hands-on work in many cases.
There are numerous institutional efforts going on these days to increase the ranks of students interested in STEM, which is now the standard acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math education. Both government and private enterprises sponsor programs such as the FIRST Robotics Competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which is designed to bring together high-school students and professional engineers as volunteers in robot designs that are different every year. The only things like this that were available when I was that age were high-school science fairs and Explorer Scouts, if you happened to be living near an Explorer post that specialized in such things. I joined such a post, and benefited greatly from the knowledge that I wasn't the only teenage boy in Fort Worth who would rather spend an evening with oscilloscopes and voltmeters than girls (for a long time, anyway).
In the nature of things, it's hard to evaluate scientifically the good done by educational programs of this type. Part of the payoff for those who organize them is the knowledge that the students involved are doing something that is socially and technically positive. Whether or not they all go on to engineering careers is almost beside the point.
But I doubt that any number of top-down organized programs and government grants will be able to replicate the spontaneous, grass-roots way the electronics hobbyists of my youth spread in numbers and accomplishments in the middle years of the twentieth century. Part of the reason, I suspect, has to do with the overall decline in what you might call the average quality of life in families. An engineer has to believe that what he or she does is based on reliable, objective scientific realities, and must have a personality that is agreeable to working in such an intellectual environment. It may be the case that certain cultural periods just naturally produce more of that type of person than other cultural periods. And we may be living through a period of time in which the engineering type of personality just doesn't show up as often as it used to.
I'm not a sociologist, nor a business expert, and I can't predict what will happen to the future pool of engineering students, or Radio Shack in particular. But nothing will change the firm's legacy of encouraging and providing for the happiness and enjoyment of thousands of hobbyists during the golden age of do-it-yourself electronics.
Sources: The news about Radio Shack's closing of 1100 stores was carried by numerous organizations, including CNN at http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/04/news/companies/radioshack-store-closings/. For those wanting to know more about the history of Radio Shack, you can consult (as I did) the Wikipedia article "Radio Shack" or an online collection of Radio Shack catalogs, including the first one issued in 1939, viewable at http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/catalogs/1939/. I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Charles Tandy. For more information about the FIRST robotics competition in the U. S., see www.usfirst.org.