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Collins, Arthur Andrew
(September 9, 1909–February 25, 1987)

–inventor of radio and avionics equipment and founder of Collins Radio Company—was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, eight years after Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean. It was the dawn of the radio age, a time when a youngster growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, could tinker with a few pieces of wire, a couple of tin cans, and a mail-order crystal set and end up hearing voices of people in New Mexico, New York, and Ohio. Eventually, Collins leveraged his passion for radio communication and his expertise in radio physics to build a world-renowned company whose avionics inventions and products served as the communications backbone for 20th-century space exploration.

    When Collins was seven, his family moved to Cedar Rapids, where his father took over a farm mortgage business. Eventually, the elder Collins managed 165 large farms totaling more than 30,000 acres in 39 Iowa counties. Although the Great Depression struck a serious blow to the company, young Arthur learned from his father's entrepreneurial spirit.

   Even as a young boy, Collins was fascinated by the idea of transmitting the human voice. One of his first "inventions" consisted of two tin cans connected by binder twine, which he stretched between his house and that of a neighborhood friend. He acquired his amateur radio license at the age of 14, and the local Kresge's and Woolworth's department stores hired him to build crystal radio sets for sale. The young radio operator's "station" was tucked beneath the third-floor attic of his family's Cedar Rapids home. In 1925, when Collins was only 15, he was the only ham radio operator able to regularly communicate (by code) with Donald B. MacMillanduring the explorer's Arctic expedition in Greenland. Because atmospheric conditions prevented regular radio contact between the expedition and the U.S. Naval radio station in Washington, D.C., the high school student telegraphed daily messages from the expedition to the U.S. Naval office.

    Collins graduated from Washington High School in 1927. After graduation, he and his friend Paul Engle, who eventually became the renowned poet associated with the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, took a 7,000-mile road trip to California in a package delivery van stuffed with radio equipment so that Collins could communicate with other amateur radio operators during the cross-country adventure.

    Although he excelled during his first year studying electronics at Amherst College, Collins decided not to continue. He periodically attended courses at Coe College and the State University of Iowa, but never earned a degree. In 1930 he married fellow Washington High School alumnus Peggy Vandyke. She died in 1955, leaving him with two children. Two years later he married Mary Meis; they had two sons. Collins was known as a devoted husband and father.

    Shortly after his first marriage, Collins set up a company–Arthur Collins Radio Labs, Inc.–on the first floor of the couple's Cedar Rapids home, where he began producing the first of thousands of radio transmitters. The company's first major success was not long in coming. In 1933 Admiral Richard Byrd and CBS Radio selected the fledgling Collins Radio Company–by then located in a factory and employing eight people–to produce radio transmitters for Byrd's historic expedition to Antarctica. The successful broadcast of voices from Byrd's flagship thrilled American listeners and catapulted Collins's young company into the national spotlight. Amateur and commercial radio users around the world began buying Collins Radio equipment. Collins was 24 years old.

    Thus begandecades of production and development of radio and avionics equipment by Collins Radio Company. During World War II, Collins Radio equipment contributed significantly to the success of Allied forces in the Pacific, helping to solidify the Cedar Rapids company as a leading federal contractor. Between 1940 and 1961, the U.S. Navy spent $534 million for Collins products, and the army almost an equal amount. During the postwar years, the company designed and built equipment for commercial airlines and began to focus on the space program. In 1960 Collins equipment enabled radio signals to bounce off the Echo satellite. A year later Collins Radio equipment traveled aboard the first manned Mercury capsule. Eight years later Neil Armstrong spoke to the world from the moon thanks to Collins Radio.

    By 1968 Collins and his family were living in Dallas, Texas, although they kept their Cedar Rapids house, where Arthur would stay during his frequent visits to the Cedar Rapids plant. Collins Radio Company, described by the Des Moines Register in 1968 as "a giant of American industry," employed 10,250 people in Cedar Rapids and another 4,500 in Dallas, with smaller plants in California and Ontario, Canada, and sales offices around the world. Sales were close to $300 million.

    But during the early 1970s, a general slowdown in commercial airline, military, and space contracts strained the company's financial assets. At the same time, Collins tried to stretch research and development toward a completely integrated communication, computation, and control system–a forerunner of today's computer technology. Unfortunately, the shift brought increased debt that, combined with the significant downturn in contracts, proved to be insurmountable. The resulting cash flow crisis nearly led to bankruptcy.

    In 1971 North American Rockwell Corporation bought Collins Radio for $35 million. Arthur Collins was fired as president, and the company eventually became known as Rock-well Collins International. In 1972 Arthur Collins formed a small engineering research firm in Dallas known as Arthur A. Collins, Inc., which focused on telecommunications and computers.

    Arthur Collins died in Dallas at the age of 77.
Sources include Benjamin W. Stearns, Arthur Collins, Radio Wizard (2002); Ken C. Braband, The First 50 Years: A History of Collins Radio Company and the Collins Division of Rockwell International (1983), in addition to newspaper clippings in the clippings files of the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, from the Des Moines Register, 2/26/1987 and 12/12/1968, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 8/8/1999.
Contributor: Jean Florman