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Sams Photofacts: A Needed Service Today

And now for something a little different in electronics books! From a half century ago comes a “book” – or, more like a manual – one of a large set that became an electronics institution for decades: the Sams Photofacts. One is shown here.

Howard W. Sams Radio Photofact Service , Vol. 4, Nos. 31 – 40, Howard W. Sams & Co., Inc., 2924 East Washington Street, Indianapolis 6, Indiana, “B” fast-action binder hardback, pages: 4.2 inches of them, 1948, priceless.

In the days when radio-TV repair shops were commonplace, electronics repairmen would rely upon the open disclosure of the electronics of consumer devices – mainly radios, TVs, and phonographs – from the Howard W. Sams company. They published packets of technical information on essentially every consumer electronics radio or television made in America, and for a few dollars, a repair shop could buy a subscription or individual folders to add to a growing collection. The Sams company last existed in Indianapolis as Sams Technical Publishing, at this website:

There they gave some company history:

Founder Howard W. Sams saw a market gap that no one was filling: the need for service technicians to have schematics and other service guidelines for the radios they were repairing. Thus, began the long and illustrious history of PHOTOFACT.

The Photofacts were superb in their organization and presentation of product information. Not only were the circuit diagrams complete and carefully drawn, later Photofacts included waveforms at various nodes, illustrated from ‘scope photographs. Parts were listed and described. This particular collection of Photofacts, from January through April of 1948, immediately preceded the introduction of television photofacts, as announced in folder # 40, the first page of which is shown below.

This announcement reveals the kind of thinking within the Sams company that offers a refreshing openness and informality lost today amidst company efforts to legally protect themselves from foolish users while inundating them with inane safety precautions. In 1948, the electronics industry was far more relaxed, as individuals were expected to take responsibility for their own behavior involving electronic devices. At this earlier time, the seeds of a later ominous development – the after-sales racket – were being sown in that for some manufacturers “servicing is being handled exclusively by contract service organizations that are closely tied to the parent factory”. For Sams, the “primary concern has always been for the independent service shop”. At first, most manufacturers controlled after-sales product servicing, though unlike today, independent service shops were plentiful.

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Photofact subscriptions began with a newsletter and sometimes tutorial material on new technology. TV circuitry was new to most repair technicians in the late ‘40s, and textbook-style coverage of basic circuit principles added to the value of the Photofact service. For instance, in volume 40 announcing television, tutorial circuit theory is offered.

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Reminiscent of some earlier Tektronix Circuits Concepts books in style and depth of explanation, the Sams “Chapter 2” on CRT beam deflection systems begins with RC circuits because they are the starting point for explaining to technicians sweep generator circuits and their sawtooth waveforms. The series RC network is described in some detail, for it has the making of a rudimentary ramp generator if the time constant is kept much longer than the sweep time. Circuit descriptions were illustrated, as shown, and causal: “When the switch is closed, electrons are displaced from the upper plate of the capacitor …”

The electronics technology of the time was based on thermionic valves (electron tubes), as the following circuit diagram shows. This 5-tube AM superheterodyne radio was a forerunner of the “All-American Five”, a refined, minimalist radio design that persisted until the end of the electron-tube era. It was not until the 1950s that the 7-pin “miniature” tubes replaced the octal tubes used in this receiver, a Bendix Model 613 phonograph-radio combination.

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The circuit diagram was always accompanied by a parts list with a photo of the hardware and arrows pointing to the components itemized in the list. The first page of the Bendix 613 parts list is shown below.

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Consumer electronics repair has changed immensely over a half century from being prominent to essentially nonexistent. Most consumer electronics is manufactured, and much of it also designed nowadays, outside the USA. Some manufacturers of consumer products continue the policy of attempting to control the after-sale product, with maintenance policies that discourage “total product ownership” by the buyer. They offer no technical product information to anyone but their authorized service centers. The buyer becomes a captive market for after-sale repair services of “the factory” or authorized repair facilities which often charge enormous prices for board swaps when component-level repair was what the customer desired. The failed component might have cost a dollar or less and have taken a competent technician a half hour to locate. The board, in contrast, can run into the hundreds of dollars. It is consequently hard to imagine the former era of widespread cooperation of radio and TV manufacturers with Howard W. Sams, as reflected in the following notice which appears on every circuit diagram I viewed in the manual:

The entire consumer electronics industry in the past was essentially open source. So were electronics instrument suppliers such as Tektronix, H-P, Fluke, and Wavetek. This openness has diminished, as companies whipping about furiously in the first-to-market product-development spin cycle have become protective of their marginally-better designs, and expect customers to continue to buy their products at an increasing rate while dispensing the previous failed iterations to the garbage dump. Repeat sales has taken on new meaning as a business model. Recourse to the Howard W. Sams manuals, though somewhat of an escape into the past from this madness, is also a refreshing reminder of what the electronics industry might again be. In this case, history hopefully will repeat itself.

2 comments on “Sams Photofacts: A Needed Service Today

  1. Bill_Jaffa
    September 2, 2017

    Now, many products warn off the user with statements such as “No User Serviceable Parts Inside” or similar threats.

  2. vbiancomano
    September 3, 2017

    I still use them! (last time about two years ago). As you say, they were very complete—even various model versions/updates had their own sections.

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