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June 17, 2016

By Lisa Dare



In the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of people coveted a computer. After all, who wouldn’t want a 35-pound machine with 32KB of memory? One that was able to type letters (CAPS ONLY), play advanced games like Lunar Lander and even do some algebra?

Lunar Lander videogame

Unfortunately for you technophiles who had computer in your DNA long before you typed your first line of BASIC, computers were out of purchase range for most people. A basic processor and kit wasn’t too expensive, but it required a lot of electronics prowess to construct, and the peripherals—including basics such as a monitor and storage—could put the price well out of reach.

Released in 1977, the TRS-80 changed the game for consumers. The Tandy Corporation, which owned Radio Shack, produced a “microcomputer” that was fully constructed and included everything a hobbyist needed to start computing, including storage (in the form of a tape cassette), a keyboard and a 12-inch monitor.

The “1977 Trinity” PC revolution

The year 1977 marked a revolution in home computing, as the famed Apple II and the now-forgotten Commodore Pet were also released that year. But the TRS-80 sold at least five times as many as the Apple and far surpassed the Pet.

Apple II  Commodore PET

The Apple II (credit Marcin Wichary) and the Commodore PET (credit Rama & Musée Bolo)

With a built-in distribution model in Radio Shack’s 3,000 retail outlets, the TRS-80 caught on like wildfire. In fact, it drowned the company in a backlog of orders, as Radio Shack had only ordered 3,500 computers for the U.S., but sold 10,000 in the first month alone.

How did this computer catch on so quickly? Radio Shack priced the computer at $599 (about $2,300 in 2016 dollars), allowing consumers—not just businesses—to purchase it. Unlike many consumer-oriented computers that came in do-it-yourself kits with components the buyer had to solder together, the TRS-80 came fully assembled.

But it wasn’t necessarily the superior machine. The Apple featured better processing and full-color graphics, but it was a lot more expensive and lacked the built-in distribution the TRS-80 enjoyed through Radio Shack. The TRS-80 was infamous for spotty program and data retrieval from its cassette-based storage system, as well as quickly corroding elements, a few of the traits that earned it the nickname "Trash-80."

But as BETA tapes learned, sometimes being the first to catch on trumps quality. The TRS-80’s popularity sparked the developer community to create a robust offering of software for the machines, from games to text editing, which then made the computer more desirable to consumers. Tandy and other manufacturers also added other hardware options, such as sorely needed floppy drive storage, keyboard options that included numbers and lowercase letters, and joysticks.

The TRS-80 Model I

Then and now: How the TRS-80 competes with today's computers

The TRS-80 Model 1

$399 HP bundle you can buy at Walmart

How they compare

128x48 pixel graphics in black and white

1920x1080 pixels in color

338X more pixels

4K of RAM

4GB of memory

1,000X processing memory

Tape cassette storage of about 200KB

1TB hard drive

About 5 million times more

1.77MHz

2.41GHz

1,000x faster

BASIC language interpreter

Windows 10 operating systems

Reminiscing about the TRS-80

We asked IT pros for their best memories of the TRS-80, and many were delighted to recollect their earliest experiences with the computer:

Edward G., web developer: I couldn't afford one ... but I used to go down to the local Radio Shack and write programs on them (in the store) and leave them running to show off what the computer could do.

Michael P., IT professional: I learned my first language, BASIC on a bad boy like this with 4K of memory and a cassette tape storage device like the one here. Calculated PI by the shot gun method and developed a dating program years before E-Harmony or Match.com!!!

Jeff M., IT leader: This thing sure looks awfully primitive now ... used these way back in '86, to learn BASIC. It was my first experience with a 'real' computer (this and the Commodore 64 at home) ... I suppose my "love/hate" relationship with computers began with the Trash 80!

Thomas M., developer: I remember punching in a computer game with this. I was like eleven years old. Oddly enough, it did a lot of what computers do today, just cruder and slower.

William B., Learning and development manager: Learning playing Dungeons of Daggaroth—or, rather, reloading it constantly from the tape drive.

Mike P., retired IT project manager: Yes, wrote a few BASIC programs as well. One calculated the mean, mode, median and standard deviation on a string of numbers. Very geeky!

William M., engineering director: The danged thing was a pain. It used to sit next to my office door. There were times that it would erase an open program when the door was opened or closed ... ESD I think! ... got tired of re-writing programs and stopped using it.

Bill S., network software engineer: ‘Business programming in COBOL' class in 10th grade. I wrote a graphics drawing and printing program in Z80 assembly. Each character position was addressable as 4 sub-blocks.

Jonathon M., manager: My dad got the 4k TRS 80 in the late ‘70s. I remember my brother and I subscribed to a game magazine that published copies of games that had to be typed in and saved to the cassette (not even a string floppy). After days of typing and corrections a running game and some of them you would even generate sound if you placed an AM radio next to the CPU. Thanks for the rush of nostalgia.

Cory C., technology executive: Driving to Ft. Lauderdale to get some of the first floppy drives in South Florida. Then drilling holes in the case for cooling. With this we made a full line of business applications.

Brian T., IT SOX project manager: I wrote a program for the computer to play chess with you ... halfway through typing it in, I ran out of RAM and had to do something else for my high school class.

Bert L., IT director: My BASIC learning friend! I didn't have the tape drive. Everything I wrote went away when I turned it off!

Jerry N., infrastructure engineer: I had one when I was about 15 years old. It generated radio Interference was so bad that I wrote code to generate enough musical notes to play the intro to "Smoke on the Water." You could hear the sound clearly on any FM radio not tuned to a local station.

Stephen S., subject matter expert: My first reference was in my girlfriend's mother's PHd dissertation. I did not know what I was doing for her at the time. She gave me several complex equations to put in a loop. It ran for five days, and spit out eight numbers. She was thrilled and that was the last I heard of it. Years later I realized that I was numerically integrating a system of differential equations. It was faster on my TRS-80 than the PDP she time shared with over 100 other users.

Frank G., senior vice president: Stringing code for universal life illustrations using Microsoft compiler basic under CP/M. Microsoft was pretty small then—this was before IBM—and when I called them to get help porting the code to an Apple II, I was always put in touch with someone named "Paul."

Have your own memories of the TRS-80? We’d love to read about them in the comments, or you can join the LinkedIn discussion.

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The best (and saddest) RadioShack obits

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