Depending on how you want to look at it, the Collins Radio Company either started as a commercial radio company that was founded and enabled by amateur radio, or it started as an amateur radio company and quickly was discovered by commercial customers and the government.
In the 20’s and 30’s, much more so than today, amateurs were responsible for the experimentation that led to many of the significant developments in practical communication and, eventually, communication theory. At that time, hams built most of their own equipment – if not every single piece. Such was the case with young Arthur Collins. It would not be until decades later, when significant electronics and propagation theory started to evolve, and the academic institutions and government research caught up, that this trend would change.
Regardless of how you look at it, the young ham named Art Collins built his own equipment, was involved in helping the government and a number of significant scientific expeditions communicate reliably, and in the process, positioned himself, and his fledgling company, to become a world leader in electronics development and manufacturing.
The point here is that Collins swiftly became a supplier of both government and commercial, and even very early lighter-than-air ship radio equipment, and the future was starting to be visible. I doubt if the young entrepreneur Art Collins spent much time thinking about end market segmentation or whether he was penetrating this or that market to its fullest. He was just on the hunt for customers and he did not care where they came from. The key to his success was his penchant for excellence in everything that the young entrepreneur, and therefore the young company, did. This was certainly noticed by the companies growing network of commercial and government customers. This obsession for only providing the best was what separated the company from its competitors in each market segment.
Early equipment development had no “end market” target as such and was generally designed to satisfy a general requirement that was useful to both the ham, the commercial and government community. As the early and mid 30’s passed, Collins Radio became more market segment and opportunity driven and by the prewar late 30’s, Collins had an offering of equipment more or less targeted at the fledgling broadcast industry, the police and government communications segment and the amateur radio market. Again though, there was a lot of commonality. More so than with many companies that became competitors after the WWII era, this commonality – because of the equipment quality and design – would persist.
Collins Radio’s contribution to WWII is a well-known and separate story. Just suffice to say here that the company grew from a “just founded” high quality small company, to one of the communication giants during the period between 1939 and 1945.
By the late 40’s, Collins was starting to recover from being shut down after the war surge, and it had returned to supplying equipment into the markets that would become its mainstay. Government Comm returned to the table. Commercial Comm was blossoming with raging sub-segments in law enforcement and the new post war business markets. Air traffic control and in Flight Comm was taking off based on the post war aviation boom. Broadcast radio was huge, and because of the exposure of the troops during the war to communications, ham radio was enjoying a big expansion. Aerospace was yet to evolve from the aircraft segment to become a segment of its own. That would not happen until the Kennedy challenge to go to the moon. Not surprisingly, Collins Radio was the market quality supplier in all of these segments.
Finally, as the “go to” company for the space race, Collins became the leading supplier of
Comm gear on the Mercury and Gemini space programs. It then went on to become the lead supplier and systems integration contractor for the more complex Apollo program. By the way, few people know that the first space flight was a “Drop and Boost” X-15 flight over Edwards Air force Base in the mid 50’s. This flight just penetrated what is now defined as the bottom of “Space”. On board of course – Collins Radio gear for the critical communications functions. Another Collins First!
The stories of these separate segments are exciting and deserve their own space below. But, it is noteworthy, and it may surprise many readers here to find out, that Collins Radio never made more than 1 % of their gross revenue from Amateur Radio Sales. This is a story in itself. The company that was founded by a ham, and led the industry in ham radio quality and technical development, was not an Amateur Radio focused company. It well knew the value though of using ham radio equipment to show off its wares and to expose people to Collins and their capability. As it had in the very early years, amateur radio gear would continue to be the key link in a marketing strategy that was developed, almost by accident, by the engineering community at Collins – led by Art Collins. Art had no use for marketing in its more formal sense. He viewed it as a necessary evil.