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Bob Dunham bio on AMA site

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Bob Dunham bio on AMA site

Old 03-22-2016, 04:10 PM
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jaymen
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Default Bob Dunham bio on AMA site

Sadly, there is a very short biography on Bob Dunham on the AMA site, so I sent them this as recounted to me by guys like Mathes, Spreng, Novak, Burlile, and Big John, and Zel Ritchie, all of whome I have worked with. Incidentally, I have the very Aerotrol radio system mentioned below, which was Dunham's first R/C rig:


Bob ran a hobby shop in the early 1950s in the Los Angeles area. He was an avid control line flyer and attended a contests at the Sepulveda Basin, which is today the Apollo 11 model flying field. Bob won a prize at one of the contests, which was a radio control transmitter and receiver called the Berkeley Aerotrol system. It used a single tube in the receiver and transmitter, and was a carrier only, relay type system. Bob was fascinated by it and showed it to his brother, Dick Dunham, who had served in the US Coast Guard as a radio and radar electronics technician and therefore was knowledgeable in radio electronics. The two brothers quickly determined the Aerotrol had some limitations that precluded them from attempting to install it in a model aircraft, and instead, they began working on an improoved design that would overcome the limitations of the Berkely system. It was not long before they appeared back at the Sepulveda Basin with their first home brewed radio in a plane and began test flying it. The system they designed turned out to be extreemly reliable and was a consistant performer. Other modelers took notice and asked the Dunhams if they could build them a radio system. Bob, with his brother Dicks assistance, refined the design and began producing transmitters with matching receivers on a special order basis in the back of his hobby shop. It was not very long before he became swamped with orders, as his radio sets were becoming quite popular due to their reputation for being reliable. The radio business grew to the point that Bob had to make a choice between running a hobby shop, or a radio control manufacturing company, and he opted for the latter. Thus, in the back of Dunhams Hobbys, Orbit Electronics had it's humble beginnings. Orbit was so successful that initially, they did not need to advertize as their biggest problem was keeping up with the orders.
By the early 1960s, Bob had set up a really nice manufacturing plant in Garden Grove, on Anabel Avenue, in a brick building. Progressing from escapement/single channel systems, he had begun producing multi channel tone equipment also known as reeds, and updated his electronics from tubes to solid state transitors. At this time the Orbit "black boxes" had gained a solid reputation with sport and contest flyers as being virtually bullet proof due to their reliability and rugged construction. Dunham worked closely with his fellow hobbyists and LARKs club members Howard Bonner and Bill Deans, using their escapements, servos, reed banks and connectors in his Orbit systems, which further improved Orbits reputation as being an industry leader in radio control equipment.
In late 1963, a windfall befell the Dunham brothers: Zel Ritchie the owner of Space Control, Gardena California, who was producing the first four channel full house analog proportional system, transfered his ownership to Orbit. It turns out that Zels accountant had absconded with all of Space Controls funds which left Zel bankrupt. Unwilling to let Space Control collapse, he gave it to the Dunhams, who in turn hired Zel as afull time employee. At this time, the very first digital proportional radios were becoming availlable, which were far more sophisticated that anything Orbit had to offer. Zel, with the Dunhams worked dilligently over the next 12 months to transistorize the tube type Space Control transmitter and refine the airborne components as well, and bring Orbit up speed by being able to now offer a full house proportional system. The revised Space Controls made by Orbit became know as "Orbitrols" and were very popular, despite their $500 plus price tag. In the mean time, Don Mathes and Dough Spreng had struck a deal with Orbit to design them a digital proportional radio, as analog proportinal systems were by comparison heavier, more expensive, and limited to only four functions. Mathes and Spreng had developed the Digicon, which was the first commercially available digital proportional system, but they went belly up due to financial and technical problems. Stung, but not dismayed, they still wanted to produce and market a digital proportional radio, but they lacked the funding and resources to do so. Here is where Orbit came in; Dunham could supply them with cases, servos and joystick assemblies so all they had to do was to build the actual circuit boards and assemble the radio systems. Therefore an agreement between Dunham and the Mathes/Spreng team was arrived at, wherin they would design the Orbit digital proportional radios and also produce their own version under the name of Micro-Avionics in a seperate facility located in Ontario, California. This agreement was kept a secret, but essentially, the Micro-Avionics radios were budget versions of the Orbit systems and were almost identical in their electronic design.
Zel Ritchie was one of the top aerobatic flyers and represented Orbit on the contests circuit. In 1965, with Dr Ralph Brookes, Ed Kazmirski, and Cliff Weirick, Zel went to Sweden as part of the USA aerobatic team and they won the world championship. Sunsequently, Zel and Bob Dunham took a trip to Japan and visited the O.S. factory where they were given a tour of the engine and radio control manufacturing lines. It became apparent to both Bob and Zel that the writing was on the wall for Orbit, and the entire USA R/C manufacting industry, because the Japanese could produce and sell an entire radio for system for about what the parts cost domestic companies...there was no way they could compete with that. Upon their return to the USA, Zel Ritchie, tired and frustated, left Orbit to pursue othe more lucrative ventures. In the wake of this epiphany, Dunham set about increasing his production and re-vamped his Anabel Avenue facility with new production lines and equipment. Almost everything needed except the electronic components was made in house by Orbit to control quality, and costs. Orbit was now in it's first year of producing digital proportional radios, although their analog "Orbitrols" continued to be produced due to their popularity. In the mean time, Micro-Avionics was having trouble paying their bills and ran up quite a tab for parts and components with Orbit. On several occasions, Dunham had to write checks just so Micro-Avionics could make payroll and keep their doors open. This fact, combined with increasing competion from Japan, and other emerging companies like Kraft, put more pressure on Orbit. When Bobs good friend Howard Bonner closed his R/C business in 1969, he made the decision to sell Orbit.
Datatron, who produced time code generators and readers for tape and film editing purchased Orbit electronics with the idea of dominating the radio control industry, in no small part this was based on Orbits reputation as an industry leader. When they aquired Orbit, they also aquired Micro-Avionics' debt to Orbit, making them the new defacto owners of Micro Avionics as well. Doug Spreng had left Micro-Avionics and gone to England, thus Bob Novak had been hired in his place, and Micro-Avionics had just released,their XL-IC series radios he had designed using the first generation of Motorola integrated circuit chips (ICs). Unfortunately for Novak, and Datatron, the Motorola chips had an unseen fatal flaw as they were not moisture proof and became intermittant in a humid environment. This sealed Micro-Avionics fate, and Datatron management closed down the facility in Ontario, laid off most of the Micro-Avionics staff and consolodated the two operations in a new facility in Santa Ana California.
Although the Dunhams had sold Orbit to Datatron, they still remained connected and involved with the company: Dick was still the head electronics consultant, an Bob became one of Datatrons main component suppliers. Dataron had been so eager to purchase Orbit that they failed to realize one very important aspect of the sale, which was that in the deal, Bob Dunham retained all the metal fabrication and injection molding operation and equipment and formed a new company called Dunhams R&R. This meant that he was now the sole supplier to Datatron of all the control sticks, cases and servo mechanics, as well as any other snall injection molded plastic parts. it turns out that this was the most profitable aspect of the business, something Dunham had learned from Howard Bonner. Because of this, and their lack of experience in the R/C industry, plus the Micro-Avionics debacle and a number of other very poor decisions, like moving production of circuit boards to Mexico, Dataron ultimatly damaged Orbits reputation which allowed companies like Kraft to take over a big chunk of their market share. By Christmass eve of 1975, Dataron had lost so much money running Orbit, and had other problems as well, that they closed dowm Orbit/Micro-Avionics for good. Many of the skilled Orbit staff, such as Chuck Hayes, Joe Martin, and Dick Raihling wound up working at Kraft. It has been said by many ex-Orbit employees that under Dunham, Orbit electronics was like one big hobby shop and a spawning ground from which many people went on to carrers in the R/C industry. Such was the carefree and easy going manner of the owner, Bob Dunham.
Dunham's, and Orbit legacy does not end with Datatron, as one individual, named Jim Burlile related to me. Jim and Eloy Marez, along with a couple other technicians were retained by Datatron to do the obligatory warranty service on radios they had sold. Jim had been the top technician and assumed the designer duties and role at Orbit. He had built several prototype radio systems that incorperated novel features like dual rates, exponential and roll buttons, and a special single stick version he used for pylon racing. Hugh Milligan made a deal with Datatron to buy out the remaining Orbit parts inventory and take over the factory service and repairs. As part of the deal, he aquired Jim Burlile and a few of the remaining techs so he could have them do the repairs and service. Jim showed Hugh his custom prototypes, the ones Datatron had decided not to produce due to new tooling costs, and together they set down and designed the Millcott Specialists radios, which like the Kraft signature series became one of the first "super radios". Thus the next generation of Orbits were essentially the very last unreleased Orbits which Burlile and Millgan re-engineered and refined into what were arguably some of the finest American made radios produced in the 1970s.
In the mean time, Dunham continued to produce a line of plastic injection molded servos and joysticks which were used by many other R/C manufactures. When I went to work for tekin Electronics in 1988, Dunmham was molding all of our R/C products plastic cases and parts Havasu. Bob continued to be a top name and supplier to the R/C industry of highly accurate and detailed plastic injection molded parts up until his passing in 1995. He was always very knowledgeable and helpful, and a great guy to work with, I for one miss him.
Old 03-23-2016, 04:04 AM
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Very interesting account of Bob Dunham. Might be worth adding that the first time the World Aerobatic Championships was won by a proportional system was in 1963 by Ralph Brooke (no 's' on the end) using an Orbit analog system. I believe that Bob was the USA team manager.
Old 03-23-2016, 08:30 AM
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Another great piece of history written down for posterity. Thank you, Jay

I was just a young guy (18 in 1960) with little or no money, but my first successful R/C flight was with an Orbit single channel Tx / Rx and Babcock compound escapement. Reading about Dunham, Brooke, Spreng, Richie, et al, in the model magazines was wonderful at the time. Your narratives bring to life figures who have always been little more than grainy black and white photos with short captions in the magazines. Now I know more of the background on these legendary characters.

Dick
Old 03-24-2016, 07:39 AM
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THE REST OF THE STORY
Actually some comments and some questions. Sometime about 1980(might have been earlier) a fellow(don't remember his name right now) in San Diego bought most of the Orbit designs, molds, and parts inventory. I (Royal Electronics) purchased the entire lot and shipped it to Denver. This lot also included the original schematics, pcb layouts and production shots from most of the molds. I still have some of the production shots in my basement. I gave the schematic drawings and PCB layouts to Mike Ross in Dallas. I was told they were thrown in the trash years later when I wanted to retrieve them and send them to the R/C Radio Control Museum in Cleveland, OH.

I made a deal with a local machine shop (fellow modeler) to run the molds in his shop. It was a part time operation and some time passed and then I found out he died and his shop and my molds were sold at auction without my knowledge.

When Proline was sold at auction I flew to Phoenix hoping to buy some test equipment but that was a wasted trip except the next day I flew to Lake Havasu to visit Bob Duham. At that time I was purchasing servos mechanics, sticks, and battery cases from Bob. It was a Friday evening and as soon as we finished our business talks Bob said let's go to the lake and spend the night on his boat. I was scheduled to fly out the next day. That evening he told me stories about his history and the whole California radio control history until approx. 2am. Just at sun up I woke up to rattling pan, Bob was cleaning his skillet and had a beer in his other hand. He fixed a Delicious breakfast and then we were off to the airport where I got on Lake Havasu Airlines (Cherokee Six) and flew to Las Vegas for connection to Denver. I have always regretted I didn't have a recorder to save the stories he told. That was the last time I saw Bob in person.

I have always considered it was a priviledge to have personally known all the radio industry guys, I don't think most modelers appreciate the talent and dedication they offered.

Sid Gates
Old 03-25-2016, 11:23 AM
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Ted Hollow was the guy in San Diego Sid. He had a girlfriend who he convinced to lend him the money to buy out the Orbit name and actually had plans to start making Orbits which turned out to be a much bigger project that would require way more finances than he could muster, so it never went anywhere. Hugh Milligan did aquire a substantial amount of inventory prior to Datatron selling off the rest, so he kinda got his pick of what he needed. All the Millcott radios used Orbit servo mechanics, and the receivers and servo amps were essentially all Orbit too, with some minor revisions to the board artwork. Hugh purchased enough of the Orbit stock to support this, and still has quite a bit of it left! At one point, Ted Hollow tried to stop Milligan from doing any Orbit related work, but was unsucessful as Hugh had already been authorized by Datatron to do be their factory authorized service center.

Dunham liked his beer I'm told, too bad I never had the chance to pop a top with him. Zel told me about flying Dunhams Cessna from Santa Monica down to San Diego once. On the return trip he was a bit overloaded for the density altitude, and mushed out right after take-off and skimmed the trees at the end of the runway. Once he got through the tree tops, there was a cliff, so he dropped the nose and dove down the cliff face to get airspeed and made a safe get-away. While clearing the pattern to turn base at Santa Monica, he looked over his shoulder and got the surprize of his life: both of the stab leading edges were bashed in and crumpled right to the spar! He said Dunham had a good laugh on him over that. Did you ever meet Dunhams first wife Bobby? She sure was a looker.
Old 03-25-2016, 12:48 PM
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Jay,
You are right, Ted Hollow was the name I couldn't remember. I did not meet Bobby. I don't think Dick Raihling ever worked at Kraft, I think he started D&R Products when he left Orbit. I know Dicks brother worked at Kraft. I started buying servos from Dick when he first opened up near Crown Valley Parkway and I-5. Later Mike Pesak joined him until they split serveral years later.

Fun to reminisce with you.
Sid Gates

Last edited by sidgates; 03-28-2016 at 05:04 PM.
Old 03-28-2016, 03:18 PM
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Thanks Jay, and to the others who added to the history of our R/C Pioneers.

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Old 03-30-2016, 04:10 PM
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Hey, good old Mike Pezak was making rubber case plugs for our marine chargers when I worked at Newmar in Santa Ana. He came to our Xmas party in 2010 and told me they sold his business, but he and his son were still running it for the new owners. Mike told me a little about the old days:
He founded and owned Medco( model engineering developement company) and made reed banks, and NiCad power packs for the tube transmitters and receivers that had DC to DC converters built in so you did not need "B" batteries. He merged with Orbit and occupied the middle unit a the Anabele Ave plant in Garden Grove. When Zel came to Orbit in 1963, he and Mike worked together as Zel also had a line or "Ritchie Packs" that were almost identical to the Medco units.
Old 03-30-2016, 04:37 PM
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If you want to hear an interesting life story ask Mike Pesak to tell you about his escape the the U.S.

Sid
Old 03-30-2016, 06:19 PM
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I had an Ace (Kraft) 10 channel reed receiver with Medco reed bank. My understanding was that the reeds were a little thicker and thus less vibration sensitive. Not sure if it was really true, but I don't think I ever had any trouble with vibration.

Dick
Old 04-01-2016, 03:17 PM
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Hey Sid,
thanks for pointing that out about Dick, as he did work at Orbit, but not at Kraft. Jim Burlile once made a joke about how Orbit was the training ground for all the guys who went on to work at Kraft, and other R/C manufacturers.

At Cox Hobbies, we had from Orbit: Jim, Burlile, and Big John Eliot. We had the spectrum analyzer and screen room from Babcock, Cliff Weirick had come to work for Lee at Cox Renaud after his falling out with Kraft, he was our field representative and travelled around the USA. I replaced Chuck Moses at Cox when he left, and later a young tech named Bob who had worked at Cannon took my place at Cox when we moved Airtronics to Downey with K&B, as Lee wanted to be seperated from Cox /Sanwa. This all occured around 1980, because at that time Leisure was wanting to downsize the facility at Cox, as they had miss-managed it and therefore were losing money. We vacated the small building on the property which is where customer service and Airtronics wood shop was (the old Helms bakery building) and moved the radio and engine repair into the main plant. About a year later, both Lee Renaud, and John Broadbeck were both able to buy their companies back from Leisure Dynamics, and not long after that, they sold Cox to the old president, Bill Selzer. Then, they quit the lease on the main plant, which still belonged to Leroy Cox, and leased the Helms building again to put all the engine manufacturing equipment. In the meantime, Leisure had sold off most of the large injection molding machines, the foundry, and a bunch of other equipment. Eventually, after getting some funding, they moved everything to Corona Ca and got back to making engines.

I met Leroy once, it was during lunch and I was buisy fixing a customers radio when I saw him come into the radio room. He had this look on his face like "where is everybody?" I stopped and introduced myself and was surprized to find out who he was. He explained he was just checking out his property, and so we had a short chat. I told him how much fun I had as a kid, and adult, playing around with his creations. He told me he had a biplane at Orange County airport with checkerboard covering which he liked to fly aerobatics. You could see the plane clearly, as it was in a prime tie-down spot on the ramp, and I used to think of Leroy everytime I drove by the airport on the 5 freeway headed south. Apparently, he died within a year of our little chat, and I will always remember him as a quiet, humble guy who took the time to talk with me.

Last edited by jaymen; 04-01-2016 at 03:29 PM.
Old 04-03-2016, 04:03 PM
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Most interesting thread!

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