Mad Man Muntz!
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The Best Of Bob Pease

 

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?"

Muntzing 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

 

Originally published in Electronic Design,
July 23, 1992.

 

 

Earl Muntz, the 4-Track Madman

by Abigail Lavine.

When I say the name "Earl Muntz", what comes to mind? Unless you lived in California in the 1940's or 50's, or you are a true student of pop culture, your most likely response is "Nothing". Too bad, because Earl "Madman" Muntz was one of the most interesting practitioners of the art of hucksterism that America has ever known. He was a self-taught engineer, an outrageous personality, and the inventor of the Muntz Stereo-Pak 4-track system, the direct ancestor of our beloved 8-track.

Like Bill Lear, the father of 8-track, Muntz was a high school dropout and a tinkerer. Like Lear, Muntz's tinkering led to some great machines. Lear had his Lear Jet and Muntz created the Muntz Jet, a souped-up sportscar which sold for $5,500 (big, big bucks in the early 1950's). Like Lear, Muntz was an audio nut. According to Billboard, he developed the first known car stereo - a 110-volt system that was modified to run on the car's own battery to avoid the risk of electrocution.

Earl Muntz started out as a used-car salesman. Before long, he began appearing on radio and television to promote his cars, and that's when his real notoriety began. Muntz is usually credited with starting the "this guy's insane, come take advantage of his crazy prices" school of salesmanship. In some of his commercials, he would promise to take a sledgehammer and smash a car on television if the car wasn't sold that day. He screamed and hollered and loudly proclaimed "I buy them retail and sell 'em wholesale - it's more fun that way!". Earl Muntz would do anything for publicity. During the height of the McCarthy era, he contemplated joining the Communist Party in order to get more exposure. He dressed up in red longjohns and a Napoleon hat, probably both as a caricature of the cliche of crazy people with Napoleonic delusions and as a representation of his plans to conquer the market. And conquer he did. Muntz made $72 million in the car business, and in the process he became a celebrity. Bob Hope and Jack Benny used his name as a punch line, tour buses regularly stopped at his lot, and in 1943, pranksters at the Rose Bowl spelled out his name at halftime.

 Muntz went from cars to televisions (he named his daughter Tee Vee, although she is usually known as Tina) and distinguished himself in this field both by making a fortune and by skimping on components in order to keep his prices low. Engineers of a certain age still refer to the practice of "Muntzing", which means reducing something to the absolute minimum number of parts it requires in order to run. Muntz was famous for walking up to his engineer's workbenches and snipping out capacitors that he considered to be "extra" (the Muntz of legend always carried a pair of insulated nippers for just such occasions).

 

Car audio was the next world Muntz set out to conquer. In the early 60's, he started producing the Muntz Stereo-Pak, a 4-track system. Bill Lear took a ride in a car with a Muntz stereo in 1963. He was so impressed that he immediately drove over to see Earl Muntz and signed a distribution deal. Lear installed Muntz players in some Lear Jets, and he began taking the players apart and finding ways to improve upon their design. And so the 8-track was born.

Earl Muntz died in 1987. At the time of his death, he had shifted the focus of his business to cellular phones. There were many other schemes in between - projection T.V.'s and aluminum houses, to name just two. Muntz was married seven times, and until the end, he drove a custom Lincoln Continental with a TV built into the dashboard (he claimed it helped him to drive better). The Muntz name lives on beyond his death. There are three "Muntz Stereo" stores listed in the California telephone books and one "Muntz Electronics".

William Golden, a man who worked for Muntz in the 1960's, has written me two very interesting e-mails. Here they are.

 

 

Date: Thu, 01 Feb 1996 05:28:51 -0800
From: "Wm. R. Golden" <wmgolden@Rt66.com>
Organization: Wm. R. Golden, CPA
To: abbot@pobox.com
Subject: [Fwd: 4-Track; 8-Track; Muntz; Drop Loop Length]
Content-Disposition: inline

To Whomever,

   Not that it makes any difference, but as a young man, I worked with 
George Eash at Muntz (Stereo-Pak) in Van Nuys, CA during the sixties.  
George was a great "tinkerer" and held hundred of patents.
   I, along with Duane McQueen and Dick Ericson formulated the so-called
"tape drop loop length" test to analyze the life span of a 4-track and 
8-track tape cartridge.  We invented the mini-pak, 4 and 8 track 
mini-tapes that contained a single song per (stereo) track.
   Shortly before the fire that destroyed the Muntz factory, Muntz was 
plagued by intermittent "beeps" on tapes made during the duplicating 
process.  The cause was eventually found to be a top-secret microwave 
testing project at Lockheed some five miles away.
   In addition, had Muntz survived, they were working on two revoluntary 
ideas.  First, they had prototyped a unit where the entire pre-amp 
consisted of an integrated circuit contained in the playback head.  
Second, already producing a unit that would play both 4-track and 8-track 
tapes, we were exploring a design that would play both Fidelipac and 
Phillips Cassette tapes.
   Notable stockholders of Muntz Stereo were Bill Cosby, Jerry Collona, 
Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Culp, Joey Bishop, Frank Sinatra and Rudy Vallee 
to name a few.  Earl Muntz's daughter Tina was a promising singer who's 
career (to the best of my knowledge) never developed.  
   Muntz was best known for his propensity for the color white.  His home 
in the hills of West Hollywood was all white, carpet, walls, etc.  The 
most impressive sight was a full-size white cloth pool table setting in 
the middle of the living room.
   Muntz, whose background was selling cars in Chicago in the 40's (he 
got the name of Earl "Madman" Muntz by running ads saying his wife said 
he was crazy for selling cars at some discounted price) was also famous 
for the Muntz TV.  Appearing in the 50's, the black and white table model 
sold for $99.95 (then a remarkable price) was known in the industry as 
the "gutless wonder" since the unit actually worked with only two IF 
stages when three or four were routinely required on the tuners in all 
other sets of that era.
   Muntz was a comical character who during the sixties was enjoying his 
sixth or seventh marriage.  
   This is probably useless information, but being a Master of Minutia I 
thought you might want to know.  
   By the way, Muntz was able to license so many duplication deals from 
record companies during the early sixties at unbelievable prices because 
they (the record companies) said that consumer tapes were a passing fancy 
and that NOTHING would ever replace vinyl records.  So much for corporate 
forecasters.
   Anyone with any questions?  Bill Golden; CServe 70363,114.


Date: Tue, 20 Feb 1996 07:53:08 -0800
From: "Wm. R. Golden" <wmgolden@Rt66.com>
Organization: Wm. R. Golden, CPA
To: Lavine/Konzelmann <abbot@pobox.com>
Subject: Re: [Fwd: 4-Track; 8-Track; Muntz; Drop Loop Length]
References: <199602032100.QAA04892@nico.bway.net>
X-Status: 

 Early Muntz 8-track tapes suffered from a relatively short "play 
life."  This was due to the fact the Muntz's tape supplier Greentree Tape 
had continual problems with the graphite backing on the tape.  (The 
graphite backing was instrumental in allowing the tape to "pull" from the 
inside of the loop.) 
   Despite repeated warnings, Earl Muntz would not switch to BASF tape.  
(BASF tape had proved phenominal it both "play life" and "drop loop 
length" tests which historically had gone "hand-in-hand.")  Muntz 
remained loyal to Greentree since the early 4-track days when Greentree 
sold Muntz millions of feet of 1/4" tape on credit and delayed billing.  
Some would say that Muntz would have never survived early on had 
Greentree not been so lenient in their credit terms with Muntz.
   Will call some of the old Muntz people later this month and see if I 
can jog memories regarding historic events.

   Bill Golden

 
 

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