A Day in RadioShack History: The TRS-80

Thirty-four years ago today, RadioShack announced a machine that would change the game of personal computers. The TRS-80 became one of the breakthrough computers that customers could buy, off the shelf and completely assembled. However, its rich history goes deeper than RadioShack or the world of microcomputers. It goes straight to those who were there to experience it. We’ve caught up with many employees who remember the launch and have inside stories that you can’t find anywhere else.

It was the mid-1970s. Don French, a RadioShack company buyer with a drive to create his own computer, began designing what would soon become a revolutionary machine.  He presented his original version to John Roach, VP of Manufacturing for Tandy Corporation, the parent company of RadioShack. Roach wasn’t significantly impressed, but he didn’t shoot it down. Instead, in 1976, fate had them travel to Silicon Valley, where they met a young engineer from National Semiconductor named Steve Leininger, who believed their idea had immense potential and eventually agreed to become part of their team.

During this time, the once-popular CB radio began to lose its selling power and Tandy Company was on the lookout for the newest, best product. Development became a pressing matter, and in February 1977, French and Leininger met with Charles Tandy, head of the company, to demonstrate their prototype. The first demonstration crashed the machine. However, after making updates and adding support, they suggested they could produce and sell 50,000 units. Executives saw this as a great overestimate and suggested they sell 1,000-3,000 per year at $199.

Jerry Heep, staff engineer at the time, remembers Mr. Tandy addressing them with a solution for building one for every store: “If we can’t sell them, we’ll give one to each store for inventory control.”

For the next several months, stores received these new computers for display. Employee Darcy May recalls, “I remember being introduced to them for the first time and told we were going to have to attend Saturday class at the office to learn how to use them. Of course, we would be paid for our time!

Steve Madsen remembers, “I was hired one month before the computer was introduced. I immediately began learning about the new computer. Only select stores had them on display, so I drove to the neighboring town to see the computer for the first time.

On Aug. 3, 1977, the TRS-80 Model I was officially announced at a NYC press conference. For $599, anyone could have the computer with a 12-inch black and white monitor and a RadioShack tape recorder as datacassette storage. Despite little media attention due to other activities that day, they received hundreds of inquiry letters and 15,000 calls to purchase, collapsing the switchboard.

Within the first month and a half, the company sold over 10,000 units. Part of the selling point was their position within the stores. Madsen recalls, “We used to sell computers by typing a three-line BASIC program that displayed the customer’s name on the screen in a loop. Customers were so amazed at the ability to own their own desktop computer and learn how to write programs that they were lining up to buy it.” Their amazement soon turned to excitement as “many of the customers would come by the store partially to see what was new and also to see if there was anyone they could tell about their experience with the TRS-80. They were brimming with excitement about owning their own computer and could not wait to tell anyone they met about it.

I started about six months after the TRS-80 was introduced,Margaret Fergon tells us. “I remember the awe we felt being able to play Pong and Chess, and I remember chasing the kids out of the store, who would otherwise spend hours there a day.

Model I was equipped with the mainboard and keyboard in one unit with a processor speed of 1.77MHz, and 4KB of RAM. (Compare this to the average 8GB on most computers today!) Another notable feature was the floating point BASIC programming language. This was designed by and purchased from a young Bill Gates, whose original MS-Windows was also later demonstrated exclusively on a Tandy 2000 due to its impressive processing speed for the time.

Several modifications were introduced for the Model I.  Product Engineer Gerald Stuteville says, “I still have my TRS-80 Model I that I purchased used sometime in 1980. It is highly modified with a lowercase mod, 256K RAM and several other hardware mods … it might even still work with some TLC.

Jeremy Smith highlights one of the major drawbacks of the first model. “I was 14 years old when the TRS-80 came out. My friend James had a TRS-80 Model I when we were in high school. It used to put out radio interference that you could pick up on your FM radio.” This interference was eventually classified as a violation of FCC regulations and as Model I phased out, the Model III phased in. Many other versions made their way to the market, including an early series of laptops and a line of Pocket Computers.

The TRS-80 was a brand that completely transformed the way consumers looked at personal computers. And although developing and selling our own computers is not a part of RadioShack’s business today, it is still our passion to provide the newest and most revolutionary products and equipment and to promote and encourage the innovative solutions and creations from people just like you.  Like French and Leininger now know, tomorrow’s technology history is yours to make today.

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3 Comments

  • Nobody

    8 GigaMites?!

  • Chuck Hulen

    I bought the first TRS-80 Model I with Level II BASIC that I could find and that involved driving almost an hour to get to the store. I remember studying the manual over and over, learning the commands and reverse-engineering the sample programs in the back of the book. After a few years, I bought one of the first CoCo’s with the ‘chicklet’ keyboards and finally my beloved CoCo3′s. I only went away from RS when the company broke my heart by abandoning plans for the CoCo4 in favor of only the MS-DOS compatibles. I use a Windows Vista machine now of course… but I no longer program, I gave up programming because it was no longer fun after my CoCo3 died. Lot of things I miss about the ‘old’ Radio Shack… the yearly catalog of discrete components, tools and project books. The atmosphere that real programming geeks and circuit wirers were welcome. Nowdays the local RSs feel more like Best Buy or Circuit City stores. The fun, the sense of being more that just electronic users, we were electronic innovators. We bought from RS… went home and built a project or wrote a program and then brought it back to the stores to show it off.. and were made to feel welcome and wanted, not looked at like we were aliens from another planet. Is it any wonder that while your sales and profits may be up.. the mystical awe that the name Radio Shack used to invoke is fading from the memories of previously loyal customers?

  • Ben

    Ah, I’ll never forget the TRS-80 CoCo I had and still have to this day. It sure changed my life (leading to a degree in computer engineering after years of fascination with programming) and probably many others, it was just a magical time for computing. It was back in the days where manuals included schematics, pin outs, timing diagrams, and low-level technical specs, because it was expected and not considered unusual that people would modify and expand these devices. They were truly for hobbyists. I also agree with a lot of what Chuck said, I remember going into RS and picking up resistors, transistors, breadboards, LEDs, capacitors, relays, and bunch of other stuff to start my experiments in electronics. Obviously the money now is in tablets and smartphones where technical details are fiercely protected “secrets”, modifications and experiments are hardly possible (partly because they’re so darned small!). It’s a shame for those with active minds but I think there will always be outputs for such creativity, we should encourage it in children so they are not just mindless consumer drones but also tomorrow’s innovators.