The Retailer of the Lost Electronics Ark

Shopping for a used oscilloscope or a rare spare vacuum tube? Walter Shawlee II's online warehouse may be the place to go

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From the outside there is little to distinguish the Shawlee family residence from the other homes overlooking Lake Okanagan in the southern British Columbia town of Kelowna, in Canada. But inside it’s another world. From here, Walter Shawlee II runs a rather unusual—and successful—operation selling used electronic test equipment and parts through his vast and colorful Web site (http://www.sphere.bc.ca) to customers all over the world.

Looking for that good old analog oscilloscope that was your benchwork companion back in the days of electronics class? Or perhaps that sturdy multimeter that you carried with you everywhere but is now long discontinued? Chances are you’ll find those at Shawlee’s virtual electronics warehouse, along with power supplies, frequency counters, signal generators, transformers, photomultipliers, high-voltage rectifiers, and a plethora of spare parts—vacuum tubes, Nixie tubes, Numitrons, cathode ray tubes, fuses, relays, and integrated circuits, including ”obscure, obsolete, and military ICs.”

The Web site is also the gateway to the self-proclaimed ”Slide Rule Universe.” Yes, Shawlee has slide rules, too. Tons of them. There are full-size units, pocket varieties, circular models, and a sleek US $195 Seiko Analog Quartz ”slide rule wristwatch.” ”Keep in mind,” the Web site says, ”in 50 years, the computer you are using to view this Web page will be landfill, but your trusty slide rule will just be nicely broken in!”

Shawlee, a former UCLA electronics engineering and math major who left the university before completing his degree, is passionate in his disdain for most modern test equipment and determined to salvage what he can from the past. ”Everyone else is busy cranking these things out that are destined to be tossed,” he told me when I visited in August. ”We’re interested in the things that are too good to throw away.”

As we toured his house, we walked through rooms that had become overhaul laboratories, their workbenches crowded with equipment that was in the process of being refurbished and calibrated. Scalar analyzers nudged up against multimode counters. Function generators hid behind power meters. It looked more chaotic than usual, Shawlee explained, because his most recent work-term student had just returned to college, leaving him with only one employee to help with the technical side of things.

”I know my wife would like to get her dining room back soon,” Shawlee says, but he admits that the last time that happened was two or three years ago.

In 1963, when Shawlee was 14 years old, he got a part-time job that was an adolescent electronics enthusiast’s dream. His place of employment was Air Electro, a Los Angeles electronics surplus store that he remembers as a ”funny little old decrepit stucco building filled with cool stuff in bins.” For a kid who ”devoured” magazines like Radio-Electronics, Popular Electronics, and Electronics World, things couldn’t have been better.

”I was busy dreaming up my own stuff,” the now silver-haired Shawlee recalls, ”and I had a huge workshop, which was very unusual. But it was because I worked in the surplus store and the guy I worked for was very understanding about a young fanatic. So I was always able to get all kinds of goodies.”

Since his days at Air Electro, Shawlee has worked at a wide range of jobs, from Volvo factory laborer to computer field-service engineer, and launched several companies, including a highly successful avionics firm, which he sold in 1992. But his teenage romance with secondhand electronics never entirely faded away.

It was not until Shawlee started exploring the newly emerging Internet realm that he could see a way to reignite his lost passion. Even then, he says, ”it was all really accidental.”

It began in the early 1990s, when Shawlee opened a drawer and came across his long-forgotten high school slide rule—a Keuffel & Esser pocket Deci-Lon, model 68-1130. The sight of its sleek Ivorite body, unbreakable cursor, and gold-embossed leather clip case reminded him of how much he had coveted that slide rule and the six months it took him to earn enough money to buy it. It also got him wondering how many other slide rules had survived the advent of the electronic handheld calculator.

On a whim, Shawlee put together a Web page dedicated to these archaic mathematical instruments and almost immediately was inundated by inquiries from people who wanted to know if he had any for sale. At that point, the answer was no, but it didn’t take him long to start assembling an inventory. With several bulk purchases, including 3000 brand-new Pickett units that had been languishing in an Arizona school warehouse and 40 unopened crates tracked down by an acquaintance from Singapore—more than 12 000 slide rules in total—Shawlee soon cornered the world market.

He had also found a new obsession, fueled especially by the Singapore acquisition. ”My eyes were just about knocked out,” says Shawlee. ”There were rules from Faber-Castell, Aristo, Hemmi—things that you would never see in North America.” Encountering these instruments for the first time in his life, he was hooked. ”Now I really wanted to know a lot more about them, and I wanted to have more of them, which is kind of like a disease.”

Meanwhile, Shawlee’s primary occupation was working on avionics and environmental-monitoring research and development contracts through his latest company, Sphere Research Corp. When he needed specialized test gear for particular tasks, he often bought and repaired old equipment, then sold it off locally once the project was complete. Realizing that he could tender these items to a much wider market through the Internet, Shawlee created a 21st-century version of the old-fashioned surplus store where he had once worked.

The equipment Shawlee acquires from suppliers and through eBay doesn’t necessarily work when it arrives on his doorstep. ”We figure out what’s good and what’s bad,” he explains. ”If it has to be overhauled, it goes into the shop. If it’s not fixable, we’re probably going to kill it for parts,” which are then used to fix other equipment or sold independently. On average, for every three pieces of equipment he buys, he ends up with two working models and a pile of parts, which sometimes turn out to be more important than the original object.

As more equipment comes and the inventory grows, the house/warehouse becomes smaller. Shawlee’s wife, Susan, seems to take it all in stride, laughing good-naturedly when her husband of 36 years says that if he just had more space, he could reorganize everything and bring order to the storage scheme. Both agree that when it comes to finding particular items, the system largely relies on Shawlee’s memory.

Susan is an active partner in the business, handling the purchase and sales transactions and accounting, plus much of the shipping and receiving. Although she has no formal training in electronics or engineering, she easily holds her own in phone conversations with customers, rattling off product numbers and brand names like a pro.

”I’ve picked it up by osmosis,” she explains.

Whether it’s by providing free extra parts or patiently answering complicated questions by phone or e-mail, the Shawlees are strong believers in keeping customers happy. Ed Meitner of EMM Labs in Calgary, Alta., Canada, is a typical repeat customer. He found Shawlee’s site through a Web search eight years ago and has been making regular purchases for use in his audio labs ever since. ”They supply very good reconditioned test equipment,” says Meitner, ”and it is more convenient than eBay.” Moreover, he now counts Shawlee as ”a good friend.”

While Meitner lives just across the Rocky Mountains from Kelowna, Shawlee has found that his location is no constraint to business. Among the more unusual destinations he has shipped to are Antarctica, Afghanistan, and French Polynesia, and his client base is diverse in other ways as well.

”All kinds of major corporations, government agencies, and military people buy parts from us,” Shawlee says. ”There isn’t a day [that] goes by that we don’t supply some critical item to somebody somewhere to keep something important up and running.”

About the Author

Frances Backhouse is a freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C., Canada.

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