The Collins Story

as told by a former employee,
Arlo Goodyear

14 October 1954

The Collins Radio Company, as an organized business concern, began in the late summer of 1932. At that time, Arthur Collins and an associate - who later left the company - were the nucleus around which the firm was to develop. It was not until May of 1933 that they were financially able to hire a full-time employee. By Christmas of 1933, the total personnel amounted to 8, including Mr. Collins and a stenographer-secretary.

Today most everyone is at least faintly familiar with the term "Ham Operator", and understand it designates one who has embraced radio as a hobby. There are literally hundreds of thousands of these hams scattered over the four corners of the earth, bonded together with a common love of electronics, and the self-satisfying desire to "build it yourself." Since the practical achievement of radio-wave transmission by Marconi, and the discovery of the vacuum tube by DeForest, these hams have been the greatest single factor in the contribution of knowledge to the practical aspects of the radio art. When World War II broke out, America was already well in the lead of the electronics field. These hams were already trained and thoroughly familiar with its requirements.

In the earliest days of the radio hobby, the devotee had no recourse other than to build his own "gear." With the advent of the DeForest multi-element tube, radio circuitry at once became more complex, and paradoxically more reliable. These two characteristics are manifest today in the miracles of radar and television. However, these same characteristics are to become the stumbling blocks of many would-be hams. It was not long before many of these hams discovered that the path of acquiring of parts, the construction, and final testing of transmitting gear was a rough one. Many of them had read or heard of a young chap in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who had built his own equipment and had successfully maintained contact with Admiral Byrd's Arctic expedition when even the government's best stations could not do so. It was at this time that Mr. Collins' business acumen became apparent; he knew how to recognize and to anticipate the needs and requirements of an infant industry. It was not necessary to build "a better mousetrap," just any "mousetrap" was better than none. That he built the best "mousetrap" he knew was the keystone of his company, as well as the symbol of his personal integrity. Those of us who remember the depression days of the early '30s will understand in some measure the security provided by such foundation, especially when we realize those dates parallel the founding of Collins Radio.

During the first two years, Collins Radio built only four types of transmitters, and three of these would be considered "flea-power" today. The early publicity of the Admiral Byrd contract paid off again when this Iowa company was commissioned to build all of the communications equipment (except receivers) for the Byrd Antarctic expedition ( 1934). The radio- interested world heard and stopped to listen, remained to buy. Father Hubbard, the Arctic priest; the National Geographic Magazine; Prince Michael of Romania; a doctor in Mexico City; an exporting firm in Africa; an Indian Maharajah; a fruit growing concern in Sumatra and Boraco; a fishery on the West Coast; these are a few of the many who helped widen into a road, the path which led to "the better mousetrap." The South American countries, whether in peace or in war, became good customers. Men came from the European countries, and even from India to study the business potential of Collins' products - radio transmitting equipment that worked consistently around the dock, month after month.

Mr. Collins is an avid aviation enthusiast, and it was only natural that he very early began research in the development of equipment for the aviation industry, both air-borne and on the ground. It was during this work that he conceived the basic idea of the now famous Autotune. In simple lay language the Autotune is a an electro-mechanical device which will automatically tune radio equipment to pre- determined channels. Its ability to accomplish this with extreme accuracy under the most adverse conditions had made this system the outstanding type in the industry.

The original site of Collins Radio was the basement of Mr. Collins' home. In 1933, the company moved to several rooms in the sub-floor of an office building at 2920 - 1st Avenue (Cedar Rapids). In 1935, the "factory" portion was moved to a store room at 7th Street and 1st Avenue; ;n 1937, it went back to 2930 and took over a factory building in the rear. In 1941, the first section of what is now known as the "Main Plant" was built at 855 - 35th Street, N.E. in what was not much more than a swampy pasture. The first citizens in that area objected strenuously to a "factory' being built near them, because of the devaluation of their property. Today that property is worth as much as a hundred-fold over the time when Collins came in. What was then corn fields, pasture land and brush is now a fine residential area of new well-built homes along paved and curbed streets. Bright-eyed youngsters on their way to school romp on the tailored lawns and admire the huge beds of brilliant flowers of the Collins' factory. And many who objected to the original move now take pride in the fact it is their source of livelihood.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt first sounded his preparedness campaign, there were about 150 employees at Collins. The business office in New York City had been firmly established and the first of the major orders from the branches of the armed service made their appearance. Until that time, most of the business had been to individuals, private firms, and to countries outside the United States. During the summer of 1941, the personnel began to expand slowly and after Pearl Harbor, it really mushroomed. Prior to then, there were still many people in Cedar Rapids who hardly knew of the company. With the war years, there was scarcely a family who was not represented directly or at least was well acquainted with an employee. In a few short years, Collins Radio became an institution in the community. Many came for employment because they felt they could do their bit to help a loved one in the service; many more came because they were lured by the upturn of wage scales, and the overtime. Local women's apparel firms reported that women who had never worn a dress costing more than $14.95 now had no hesitancy at paying from $59.50 to $89.50 for garments.

In 1943, the factory employees accepted the American Federal of Labor, (AFL), as their bargaining unit. It is worthy of note that Collins has never had a major labor difficulty and not one man hour has ever been lost because of strikes. Those people chosen to act as shop stewards have been responsible in their requests and behavior. The company, on the other hand, hired organizational experts to conduct complete surveys and to submit a system of wage brackets, establish rules of seniority, and pay increases, and to set up a general working plan. Collins has always followed a philosophy of promotion from within where such a system was at all feasible. That there were "growing pains" was an inescapable fact. Men who had never dreamed of supervisory work suddenly found themselves heading large groups. In many cases they had to learn by trial and error - there were not teachers. Be it said to the everlasting credit of both the leaders and the led, that they got the job done, and still maintained the high standard that had become the hallmark of the company.

To further extend good working conditions, the company set aside a ten minute period at mid-morning, and another at mid- afternoon as "coffee breaks," without a pay loss to the employee. A large cafeteria completely outfitted in stainless steel equipment of the most modern design was built close the main factory, and its concessions, subject to company limitations as to price, sanitation, etc., was leased to a private firm. Complete First-Aid stations were set up at major areas, and adequately staffed with a corps of registered nurses especially trained in industrial nursing. Several matrons were appointed to help with the personnel problems of the female employees. It should be understood that in a company of several thousand employees, its cross section is a cross section of every day America - a panorama of love, hate, jealousy, temperament, finances, morals, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, new cars, last year's dresses, payments on the home, and what have you.

In about 1942, a credit union was established among the Collins employees. Seven men paid a sum of $5.00 each, another man borrowed the $35.00, and the Collins Employees' Credit Union was in business. Today it has the staggering capital of $900,000.00; an office suite with a staff of four full time employees - not to mention the various credit and auditing committees who work without pay - and a complete set of bookkeeping machines.

Because of the heavy burden of personnel work - employee's financial crisis - which the Credit Union took over from the company, the management saw fit to subsidize the infant concern in the earlier days. Within a year, it was paying its own way even at the low rate of interest charged on loans. Besides that, it furnishes an annual dinner-dance for all active members and their immediate families, an event marked by fine food, a good dance band, and a floor show of big time entertainers. While a strictly private Collins concern the Credit Union functions under the Iowa Banking Laws and the Bureau of State Bank Examiners. The total losses of about 1/10 of 1% speaks eloquently for the way the group is handled.

In this modem world of science, there is no such thing as standing still. One either goes ahead or falls behind. A thorough understanding of the month-to-month achievements in the electronic and kindred fields is an essential requirement for progress. To insure an adequate collection of such information, and to provide a central dissemination point, a large and very complete technical library has been set up. It is housed in a beautiful, modern, and well appointed area, and staffed by four full-time trained librarians. As a means of further enlarging its scope, it has liaison with the local public and private libraries, the library of the University of Iowa City, as well as the state and national groups. There are approximately 4,000 books, 300 pamphlets, 200 subscriptions to current magazines, and 5,400 reports from other firms in the industry. These are readily available to any member of Collins personnel. All information is cross-referenced to title, author, and subject matter, and is issued on what is basically an honor system, although for obvious reasons, records are kept as to the temporary custody of the material.

The library is open around the clock, though staffed only during regularly scheduled working hours. The bound books include important magazines of previous issue, two sets of encyclopedias, dictionaries of general use as well as of various languages and arts, handbooks and texts on mathematics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, personnel, management, supervision, hydraulics, mechanics, ferrous metals and etc.

Because electronics is, after all, a branch of physics, a staff of graduate physicists, and another of mathematics is maintained to do research work for any department needing help. A complete and exceptionally well equipped chemical laboratory, staffed by six graduate industrial chemists study the problems of lubricants, paints, stress data, powered iron cores and kindred questions. Should field reports on a certain type of equipment show that perhaps the engraving on the panels were not wearing well, then it would be the task of this department to study the conditions under which the units had been operating, and to find an ink that would last.

To aid project engineers in materializing their ideas in a somewhat concrete form, Collins has a pattern shop where craftsmen build balsa wood models from the most scanty of diagrams. These pattern makers can turn out models in a matter of minutes with the obvious saving in time and money over the old systems of making such components of metal. In technical nomenclature, these are knows as mockups or "dog" models. They provide the designer with a 3-D perspective impossible to achieve on a drawing board.

During the war years, it was almost impossible to find adequate housing for the rapidly expanding departments at Collins Radio. Because the actual factory production demanded rather specialized areas it was found expedient to place the more flexible groups in outlying buildings. At one time in the approximately thirteen mile square Rapids, Collins had twenty-three sections scattered about and delays brought about by such a scheme is at once appeared necessary to set up the most elaborate private telephone system built in the Middle West. There are three complete exchanges, each large enough to serve the average town in Iowa, and staffed by shifts of regular operators. These girls not only handle calls to cities all over the world but act as receptionists and handle both teletype and regular Western Union telegraph service. Within the company, the phones are, of course the automatic dial system, and do not require the service of the operators. These competent girls are busy all day finding individuals in other firms over the country, taking messages, making train plans and hotel reservations, as well as presenting a trim and chic appearance to the public. They are especially selected for their patience, sincerity, appearance, and ability to make "hair-trigger" as well as diplomatic decisions.

Because of the highly confidential nature of so much of the work at Collins, absolutely no outsider is permitted to go beyond the public lobbies, unless recognized, authorized and "cleared." Even then he does not move about unescorted. To provide enforcement of this rule, a corps of approximately fifty armed guards are on duty in shifts around the clock, seven days a week The authority of these guards is final. They are charged with the responsibility of security, but if asked to maintain it with tact and diplomacy at all times. They would be upheld if they barred the President of the United States until he was properly identified. Be it said to their credit that they are considerate, polite, reasonable, and human. No employee is ever made to fee he is being spied upon or has reasons to feel his privacy is invaded.

The guard corps also constitutes a trained fire brigade which is augmented by a company fire marshal, and checked regularly by the city and state fire inspectors. An interesting incident occurred recently when the writer reported an overheated bearing in the air conditioning system in one of the buildings. In forty seconds, an electrician, two maintenance men, and two guards were on the spot with chemical extinguishers and a ladder.

Earlier in this paper, we commented on the relatively wide geographic separation between various departments of the Cedar Rapids properties. This necessitated the setting up of a system of mail cars operating on a regularly scheduled routes between these areas. Uniformed drivers in station wagons maintain this service during all working days. The amount of mail - both inter-office and postal - require the use of "mail-rooms" at each building, with a staff of "mail girls" who distribute to the final destinations approximately every hour. Another group of men perform the same service twice daily for heavy or bulky commodities. There are about thirty-five vehicles ranging form passenger cars up through milk trucks, and dump trucks, two huge "semis" for cross country deliveries.

Soon after the opening of the municipal airport, Collins leased an extensive area of that ground and built a modern hanger, control tower, and associated offices. Its purpose was threefold. The company owned a DC-3, two twin-engine Beechcrafts, and a "trainer" besides the privately owned craft. Adequate facilities were thus provided for "in the air" test and research of airborne gear. A place was provided for the installation of our equipment in customer's planes and the company could house its own ships, ready for delivery of emergency repairs over the nation as well as to transport executives, by time saving flights.

Two licensed commercial pilots and three licensed mechanics were on duty. Scarcely a day passed that at least one "visiting" plane does not land on the Collins strip.

Collins Radio maintained its own staff of technical writers who set up the highly intricate and precise instruction manuals which must accompany each individual unit. Under the general headings are the typing, printing and binding sections, the commercial artists, the large and most modern photographic department capable of doing anything from portraits to microfilming, motion pictures and high speed photography. There is an advertising department and a publications department, whose duty is to publish the monthly "Collins Column" and the periodic "Collins Signal" as well as public relations brochures and the like.

A separate area where the temperature and humidity are precisely controlled and where the operators are dressed in full surgeon's regalia, houses the flight instrument department. Here delicate mechanisms as fine as those of a lady's watch are assembled into the systems upon which an airplane pilot depends for his senses, and sometimes for his very life.

These are a few of the sections which actively produce merchandise. To sustain these groups, and the company as a whole, are the huge accounting department - with its banks of business machines - a complete legal staff, a complete corp of patent attorneys, a maintenance staff of electricians, truck drivers, painters, plumbers, carpenters and janitors. There are building engineers and heating engineers, there are messenger and delivery boys, yardmen and horticulturists. Ringling Brothers Circus is dwarfed by the immense corp necessary to keep such an establishment operating every hour of every day. More than 97 of these people are from within the general Cedar Rapids area, and spend about 95% of their wages in that area, literally millions of dollars annually - what is generally believed to be one of the largest private payrolls in the state.

With the sudden interest in atomic energy, Collins entered the field in 1945. It had the honor of building and installing at Brookhaven, Long Island, the world's first commercially built cyclotron. In lay terms, this an advanced type of "atom smasher.'' This was followed by a similar installation at Argon, near Chicago, in 1951. From then on, the Korean situation compelled the company to apply its entire production to war materials.

In 1946, Collins built and began production in a site at Burbank, California. In 1950, another plant was built at Dallas, Texas. This is primarily devoted to aircraft equipment, and the site was chosen because of the better year round flying weather. Also because of the government's policy of widely separating strategic plants. The Dallas plan employs about 1,200 people, and the Burbank location about 800. In 1954, a sales office was opened in Toronto, Canada, to handle Canadian and British business. Early in 1953, Mr. Collins broke the ground for the most modern and complete Engineering Building in the Middle West. It was ready for occupancy about Christmas of '53. It now houses about 750 engineers, draftsmen, laboratory workers, stenographic and secretarial help. It has its own cafeteria- auditorium, is completely climatized, and covers an area of roughly a square city block. Located on the north-eastern outskirts of the city - in the shadow of the WHT-TV tower - it is beautifully situated in a landscaped oak grove. Its outside is pleasingly modem in aspect. Its interior is functional with adequate provision for the comfort and well- being of the employees. A system of recorded music forms a restful background during the coffee breaks and at noon. In good weather, the personnel are at liberty to enjoy the beautiful lawn and park during the rest periods. It may be truly said that Collins Radio pioneered the policy of employee well-being in this area.

One trait is common to all Collins Radio properties and never fails to excite comments from observers - it is the extreme immaculateness and cleanliness and good order. This holds true from its perfect lawns to its restrooms. That rule is unfailing - it has been laughingly said that ,even, Collins confusion is neatly done!

Thus a multi-million dollar, internationally known electronics firm has grown from a young man's vision and integrity. There are boys and girls in our schools and colleges who firmly believe that Collins Radio is part of their own family, because in their life time, it has been a source of income, a sense of security, for their parents. The story of Arthur Collins is another chapter in the American Saga.

We are grateful to Charles F. Brett - KC0APU, a former Collins employee, now living in Colorado Springs, for furnishing us with a copy of Arlo Goodyear's manuscript. It provides our readers with a first-hand account of what it must have been like to have been associated with Collins Radio in those early years.

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Copyright © 1996-WA3KEY & 1954 Arlo Goodyear
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