Electronic Design

What's All This Muntzing Stuff, Anyhow?

Recently, a young engineer wanted to show me a circuit he had been optimizing. We reviewed the schematic and the breadboard, and we studied the waveforms on the 'scope. We realized that one of the resistors was probably doing more harm than good, so he reached over for a soldering iron. When he turned back to the circuit, the offending resistor was gone! How did it disappear so fast? Ah, I said, I always keep a pair of small diagonal nippers in my shirt pocket. And when I want to disconnect something, it only takes a second to snip it out or disconnect it on one end - just like Earl "Madman" Muntz. The kid looked at me. "Earl WHO?" And I explained.

Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, television sets were big and expensive and complicated -a whole armful of vacuum tubes, lots of transformers and rheostats and adjustments that had to be trimmed, and many complicated circuits for signal processing. And all to drive a crummy little green-and-white 5-in. or 7-in. picture tube, where the whole family could crowd around to watch.

Earl Muntz was a smart, flamboyant businessman. Anybody who could make a success of selling used cars in 1939 or 1946 had to know something about salesmanship, and Muntz had built up a $72 million business in Glendale, Calif.

For example, Muntz would advertise a particular car with a special price as the "special of the day" - a car that had to sell that day. If the car was not sold by the end of the day, Muntz vowed to smash it to bits with a sledge-hammer, personally, on camera. Needless to say, with tricks like that he was able to generate a lot of publicity and interest, and sell a lot of old cars, too.

So when Muntz started his plans to sell TV receivers in 1946, it was obvious that he would be looking for a competitive advantage - in other words, he had to have an angle. He wanted to get the circuits simple - the manufacturing costs low - and he knew he needed a lot of promotion.

He realized that a receiver designed for "far-fringe reception" (40 or 50 miles out) had to have at least 3 or preferably 4 Intermediate Frequency (IF) stages (with a pentode for each stage, plus a transformer, 5 capacitors, and 3 resistors), and loops to hold the frequencies stable even when the signals were very weak.

Muntz decided to relinquish that "fringe" business to RCA and Zenith and other established manufacturers. Instead, HE would design for Manhattan and other urban areas, where you could look out your window and see the doggone transmitting antenna on top of the Empire State Building, or equivalent.

HE knew he could get engineers to design television receivers that would be very inexpensive, very simple, and would still work quite satisfactorily in these strong-signal areas. Then he could get away with two IF stages, and they would not need fancy loops, and the tubes could all be biased up with cheap-and-dirty biases.

As the circuits shrank, the power supply shrank. And as the price shrank, his sales volume began to grow, leading to still further economy of scale in manufacturing. Muntz dropped his prices so fast, so low, that his competitors again accused him of being a madman, cutting prices and competing unfairly.

When people watched Ed Sullivan or other pioneering programs of the era on their tiny 7-in. screens, who came on at the end of the hour to promote his new, low-priced 14-in. (diagonal measurement) TV sets? Why, Earl "Madman" Muntz himself!

"You can have TV in your home tonight," he would say. "Your living room is our showroom." And, wearing red long johns and a Napoleon hat, he would vow, "I wanna give 'em away, but Mrs. Muntz won't let me. She's crazy."

Muntz was a smart merchandiser, and he knew that his competitors' jibes could be turned to work to his advantage. He knew that his TVs were not built of cut-rate parts - in fact, his receivers were carefully engineered to be at least as reliable as the competitors' sets that cost twice as much - and they would perform just as well, so long as you stayed in a strong-signal area.

And how did Muntz get his circuits designed to be so inexpensive? He had several smart design engineers. The story around the industry was that he would wander around to an engineer's workbench and ask, "How's your new circuit coming?"

After a short discussion, Earl would say, "But, you seem to be over-engineering this - I don't think you need this capacitor." He would reach out with his handy nippers (insulated) that he always carried in his shirt-pocket, and snip out the capacitor in question.

Well, doggone, the picture was still there! Then he would study the schematic some more, and SNIP... SNIP... SNIP. Muntz had made a good guess of how to simplify and cheapen the circuit. Then, usually, he would make one SNIP too many, and the picture or the sound would stop working. He would concede to the designer, "Well, I guess you have to put that last part back in," and he would walk away. THAT was "Muntzing" - the ability to delete all parts not strictly essential for basic operation. And Muntz took advantage of this story, to whatever extent it may have been true, and he publicized his "uncanny" ability to cut his costs - in yet more televised advertisements.

For several years, Earl Muntz kept impressing his engineers to build in only the circuits that were essential, and for those years, his TV receivers were competitive and cost-effective. All because of his "Muntzing," he would say in his ads. But really, that was just one aspect of good sharp engineering. And of course, he had to know where to start snipping. Although he was not a degreed electrical engineer, he was a pretty smart self-taught engineer, and his marketing and advertising campaigns capitalized on the story: He knew how to engineer what people needed - right down to a price.

For example, only in the last 10 years has Automatic Fine Tuning become universally available on UHF as well as VHF tuners, so that manual fine tuning is unnecessary. But as early as 1958, Muntz TV bragged that there was no fine tuning on their best receivers, on all 12 channels. Did Muntz build in AFT before his time?? Heck, no - he just left out the fine tuning knob. The tuners were all tuned up at the factory. Then if the tuning drifted on a hot day, or the tuner components aged, you just had to call in a serviceman to tweak it with a special screwdriver.

So, Muntz had the gall to leave out an important feature, and then he bragged about the apparent simplicity! You can fool some of the people some of the time ...

Muntz got rid of the Horizontal Hold AFC circuit to cut costs. He got his engineers to use a straight Hold circuit, which actually worked well under strong signal conditions and was easier to troubleshoot than the temperamental AFC loops of the day. He pioneered and took advantage of the Inter-carrier sound (Parker System) so that audio tuning was automatic and no separate tuning was needed. This was a necessity before he could drop the fine-tuning knob ...

For some production adjustments, his test technicians would clip a trim pot onto the circuit, twiddle it to get the alignment just right, and then remove the pot and solder in a fixed resistor of the required value. All very fine, AND inexpensive, but as the carbon resistor aged, and the circuit aged, the TV receiver would go "on the fritz." Then the TV repairman would have to make a special trim, much more expensive than just tweaking a pot. The repairmen were happy to get all this repeat business, but eventually the customers figured out that a low initial cost was not necessarily the best investment ...

Finally, as the TV receiver business matured, Muntz realized he had sold all of the cheap sets he could, and he got out of the manufacturing business. After a brief bout with bankruptcy in 1954, he got back in the business of selling TV and electronics, "HiFi and Stereo," in a Los Angeles store, until his death in 1987 at the age of 77. The store is still open, operated by his family and heirs.

These are SAD days, because kids don't get a chance to build their own TVs or radios or FM tuners. Heathkit used to make it easy to build their kits. I myself built three Heathkits and a Knightkit 10-W amplifier, as well as a couple other kits. And I helped some of my friends when they were having trouble with their Heathkits. NOT because I was an expert on circuits in those days at MIT, because I was really pretty ignorant of electronics - I was a struggling would-be physicist then, in Course 8. I just thought this electronics stuff was kind of fun! But I was interested because these kits were such interesting stuff.

These days, you can hardly buy a kit. Heathkit went out of the kit business in January of 1992. The kits were more expensive than the assembled circuits you could buy from any number of stores. BUILD your own TV? How bizarre! The Japanese could build them, with very high quality and very low cost, and even if you threw in your own labor for free, a Heathkit cost more to buy!!

Let's go back to the scene where Mr. Muntz was trying to justify which parts could be safely left out of the TV set. If he snipped out a resistor that appeared to be unnecessary, but it was actually needed for operation on low line voltage, or when the frequencies shifted on a hot day, then I really believe Mr. Muntz would not prevent the designer from justifying it on a real need basis. But frivolous circuits - they were too expensive to keep.

Now let me make some observations about adding features and "frivolous" circuits, which is what I tend to support. An example: If I design a new circuit with 8 new features, I may argue to the marketing expert that these features will surely sell lots of these parts to new markets.

He may ask, "Bob, which of those 8 features will make it sell so well?" And, I'll admit, I have no way to guess exactly which ones, but I believe that 2 or 3 of them will be very popular. No matter how much he grills me, he can't shake me loose from my ignorance - I really do not know which of the 8 added features will make the basic chip a great seller.

BUT, things have changed from the days of Earl Muntz. Today, I can add 5 transistor functions here, and 8 there, and 14 here, and 27 there, and altogether they will not add 2% to the area of the chip, nor the cost, and they won't hurt the yield.

They may not even impact the test time all that much. They will surely have no affect on reliability if I design them properly. In Earl Muntz's day, though, NONE of these statements were true. Things sure keep a-changing, don't they??!!

Comments invited! / RAP
Robert A. Pease / Engineer

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