Rockwell Collins celebrates 80 years in the aircraft electronics business

Arthur Collins developed combined instruments, flight directors and a host of panel innovations that improved safety for pilots and pax.

By Grant McLaren

Collins Radio Company hangar at CID (Cedar Rapids IA) with a Beech 18 in 1946.

The story of Arthur Collins and Collins Radio is a legend in the aviation industry. A concept for what was to evolve into Collins Radio Company, and later Rockwell Collins, began to take form in the mind of a young teenage radio enthusiast—Arthur Collins—in the early 1920s.

The enthusiasm, penchant for quality and focus on practical user-friendly electronic applications that Collins displayed many years ago set the foundation for one of today's leading avionics suppliers.

Right from the beginning Collins radio equipment was recognized for quality, reliability and innovation. While initial Collins Radio Company products were limited to short-wave radio equipment, later developments, including flight control instruments, radio communication devices and satellite voice transmission technology, created great opportunity in the marketplace.

During its first decades in business Collins Radio expanded its work into all phases of the communications field while broadening technology thrusts into numerous other disciplines.

After acquisition by Rockwell Intl in 1973 the company further expanded its aviation electronics focus.

Rockwell Intl—with its own illustrious history of building the WWII P51 Mustang, B29 Superfortress, F86 Sabre, Apollo spacecraft, Space Shuttle and Navstar global positioning system (GPS) of satellites—added an important chapter to the story while boosting R&D resources and marketing capability to drive Rockwell Collins to the industry leadership position it maintains today.

In Jun 2001 Rockwell Collins was spun off from Rockwell Intl, becoming a public company on the New York Stock Exchange. Today Rockwell Collins designs, produces, markets and supports electronic communications, avionics and inflight entertainment systems for business, commercial, military and government customers worldwide.

Rockwell Collins brand electronics are installed in flightdecks of nearly every airliner in the world and its airborne and ground-based communications systems transmit nearly 70% of all US and allied military airborne communications.

Meanwhile, within the corporate world, the company's latest Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics suite—a system introduced in 2007—captured dramatic market share and was successful in winning 22 of 23 competitive OEM bizav flight­deck system bids.

Building a business

Some have called Arthur Collins a man of greatness. He was able to convert his passion for radio technology into more or less continuous scientific advance.

Arthur Collins was born in Okla­homa in 1909 and became interested early on in radio technology. While most boys his age were out playing cowboys and Indians Collins was in the house working on his radios.

He used pieces of coal for rectifiers, glass towel racks for insulators and even a Model T spark coil wrapped around a Quaker Oats box to create his own tuning coils.

Those early efforts reflected a culture of experimentation that led to successively more reliable, higher-performance radios. It was not long before his bedroom walls were covered with dials and radio switches.

By age 14 Arthur Collins had obtained his FCC radio license and was busy communicating with ham radio users worldwide.

Collins' reputation in the radio world grew quickly. At age 15 he successfully maintained contact with a scientific expedition to Greenland even when the US Navy's Washington DC radio station lost contact. A focus on quality and best practice engineering principles was evident early in Arthur's young life.

While other radio hams had gear cluttered all over the place Collins designed his gear to eliminate clutter by packing radio equipment into neat, organized units. He recognized at an early age that correctly organized and engineered construction not only stabilizes circuitry but makes electronic behavior more predictable with longer service life.

This was the beginning of an industrial and engineering philosophy—focusing on quality and user-friendly operation—that would propel Collins Radio into the future.

Arthur Collins incorporated Collins Radio in 1933, during the depths of the Depression, with 8 employees and $29,000 in capital. For the first 2 years Collins built only 4 types of radio transmitter, aimed at the amateur market, but he soon found that his equipment was being used by government and commercial enterprises.

Boeing B29 radio room. The ART13 transmitter and antenna coupler were located on the radio operator's left.

Collins was known to stay at work for 24 to 36 consecutive hours taking catnaps at his scrupulously organized desk. His big break, which put Collins Radio in the national spotlight, came in 1933 when the company supplied communication equipment for Rear Admiral Richard Byrd's expedition to the South Pole.

Collins short-wave telegraph radio units provided reliable voice transmission throughout Byrd's Antarctic expedition and spurred worldwide demand for company products. Early customers in those days included Father Hubbard—a "glacial priest" who had his Collins radios adapted for dogsled travel in Arctic regions—and Maharaja Mysore who ordered Collins transmitters in 1935 for use on tiger hunts in India.

The maharaja purchased 4 Collins radios—1 for each of his wives—so that he could talk with them while on safari. Soon, Firestone Tire and Rubber put in an order for Collins radios for use in Liberia.

Many police departments around the US began using 2-way radios in the late 1930s. By 1935 Collins had supplied compact Model 45A transmitters to police departments in California, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and South Dakota.

Company revenues reached $19,000 in 1934, doubled by the next year and by 1936 had increased to $391,000. Collins Radio was growing quickly, attracting highly skilled employees and pushing the frontiers of radio technology and reliability.


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