Technologizer

Please Don’t Call It Trash-80: A 35th Anniversary Salute to Radio Shack’s TRS-80

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Radio Shack's TRS-80 Model I microcomputer, complete with Expansion Interface, floppy-disk drive and printer

Just writing about all this is giving me a Proustian jolt of pleasure. I spent thousands of hours sitting in front of TRS-80s, cranking out programs in BASIC. I knew the machine inside and out, in a way that’s impossible with modern computers. I didn’t even mind dealing with its quirks, such as “keybounce,” a devilish defect with early models which lled to their keyyboards repeatiing characters randomlyy.

80 Micro

Wayne Green

Let’s recap. The TRS-80 was useful. It was fun. It was popular. It played at least as great a role as any other single machine in consumerizing what had originally been a product category for the propellerhead set. But somehow, it never got anywhere near the respect it deserved. Back in the day, computer fans who weren’t TRS-80 users tended to dismiss it as ugly and insignificant.

In fact, TRS-80 haters had a favorite put-down, which they used at every possible opportunity: They called it the Trash-80.

There are those who claim that this was a nickname fondly applied by TRS-80 fans themselves; maybe so, but I’m positive it originated as a slur. I certainly remember being wounded by it at the time when it was used by Apple II owners–those pompous, style-obsessed twits.

Even today, “Trash-80” strikes me as a mindless jibe that reveals more about the people who used it than it does about the TRS-80. The TRS-80 wasn’t perfect; even so, it was one of the best PCs of its time. Suggesting that it was a piece of junk was both mean and inaccurate.

Why was the TRS-80 the Rodney Dangerfield of early computers? In part, it was because it was a decidedly proletarian device which didn’t look important. Its graphics were ugly. So was its plasticky gray case; the TRS-80 got its design aesthetic, such as it was, because Radio Shack modeled the computer itself on the monitor, which was actually a repurposed RCA TV set. By contrast, the Apple II did Atari-like color graphics and came in a curvy beige case with the feel of a piece of high-end consumer electronics.

Infoworld cover

Google Books

Then there was Radio Shack itself. Even if you’re fond of the place — as I was, and am — it’s difficult to argue that it was good for the reputation of the TRS-80. Its essential lack of dignity transferred itself to the computers the company made.

At a Radio Shack store, the TRS-80 wasn’t surrounded by other computers; it sat alongside odd electronic toys, Radio Shack-branded hi-fi equipment, diodes and resistors and vacuum tubes, Flavoradios, and lots and lots of batteries and audio cassettes. Most of the people behind the counters, in my experience, knew very little about the TRS-80. They did, however, want to collect your name and address every time you made a purchase in order to carpet-bomb your mailbox with ads, a practice the company terminated only in this century.

For a time, there were also Radio Shack Computer Centers which tried for a more corporate feel, although the mere fact that they had the words “Radio Shack” in their name made them feel like, well, Radio Shacks. Radio Shack is still struggling with its moniker today: It changed it to RadioShack in 2000, and has recently taken to calling itself “The Shack.”

If Radio Shack was bothered by its image problem in the TRS-80 era, at least it got to cry all the way to the bank. Even after the Apple II, Commodore 64 and other competitors became blockbusters, the company continued to sell plenty of computers. It also aggressively broadened the TRS-80 line, starting with 1979’s Model II, a more expensive, business-oriented model.

TRS-80 Model 100

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1980’s TRS-80 Model III — essentially the Model I in an all-in-one-case — was a best-selling workhorse. 1983’s TRS-80 Model 100, the first successful notebook computer, might have been a more important machine than the original TRS-80. Radio Shack even sold high-end computers in configurations that cost as much as $22,000, or at least attempted to do so.

But as the computer world began to change at a dizzying pace, the TRS-80 line evolved only in baby steps. Even I wasn’t impressed by 1980’s cheesy and underpowered TRS-80 Color Computer; I was frankly dismayed when my high-school buddy Charles chose to buy one. (Then again, the Color Computer has its partisans even now. I suspect I’ll hear from some of them — maybe even Charles.)

TRS-80 Model 4P

RadioShackCatalogs.com

In 1984, the year Apple introduced the landmark it called the Macintosh, Radio Shack was still noodling around with variations on the Model I such as the Model 4P, a 26-pound “portable.” That was also the year it released the Tandy 1000, a computer Wikipedia correctly calls a “more-or-less IBM PC compatible” system.

For a while, Radio Shack seemed to flourish as a maker of PC clones, but by the mid-1990s, it decided to exit the PC business. It then sold other companies’ models, such as Compaqs. But its days as a major purveyor of PCs are so far behind it that I wasn’t even sure whether today’s Radio Shack sells computers at all until I checked. (It turns out that it does; it’s also one of the handful of retailers authorized to sell the iPad.)

The last TRS-80 on the market was the Model 102, a slightly-improved variant of the Model 100. It expired in the early 1990s, and at the end, Radio Shack simply called it the “Tandy 102.” There’s a modern trend of releasing new computers under famous old names, but I hope that the Shack leaves well enough alone: No new TRS-80 could be anywhere near as important in 2012 as the original one was in 1977.

That original model and its relatives are lovingly documented on the web. Ira Goldklang, proprietor of TRS-80 Revived, is a one-man National TRS-80 Museum. Matthew Reed blogs engagingly about the machines at TRS-80.org. If you ever looked forward to the arrival of new Radio Shack catalogs as much as I did, visiting RadioShackCatalogs.com is like taking a time machine back to your own past. And truly serious TRS-80 admirers can even run old TRS-80 programs on new computers via emulation.

Also worth a read: David Welsh and Theresa Welsh’s Priming the Pump, a history of the TRS-80 which is now available in a Kindle edition.

So ha ha, TRS-80 haters: The machine you loved to dismiss has stood the test of time. I knew back in high school that the Model I didn’t get enough credit. But I didn’t anticipate how much it would continue to matter to citizens of the 21st century, myself included.

Trash-80? Don’t be silly — it’s a treasure.

MORE: Clamshell! The Story of the Greatest Computing Form Factor of All Time

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60 comments
ChrisCringle
ChrisCringle

The TRS-80 COCO was my first home computer that my parents bought for me because I was playing around with the Apple II series in the Armed Forces. I taught myself BASIC on it, and subsequently assembly language too. I dumped out the entire ROM on a thermal printer to see where I could jump into to call existing subroutines from within assembly, and even started working on a CAD type of tool since it had a 640x192 resolution screen with 4 colors that I could "draw" on ... sadly I never was able to finish before moving on.   :-(

But it was TONS of fun!

GuyWithGuitars
GuyWithGuitars

Oh, the memories.... I had a TRS-80 Model I with the expansion interface and a massive 48k of RAM running NewDos 80. I still remember the whirring and clanging sound of those disk drives. I sold a couple 'type em in yourself' programs to 80 Micro magazine. Imagine my surprise when a check for $400 showed up for my adventure game Desolate Journey and my hex editor I called "Data Boy" (mispronouncing 'day-tuh as datt-uh for the first time in my life). I can't say I wasn't jealous of the snotty Apple II+ and Apple IIe owners back then - them with their color graphics and indestructible keyboards. I'd love to find another Model I system.

DonaldH.French
DonaldH.French

I am the Don French that created the the TRS-80. The computer that created the personal computer industry.  If it had not been for Radio Shack creating the awareness of the personal computer, companies like Apple would be bankrupt. It took the visibility of Radio Shack to spark the industry.  It was a good hobbyist business. Even Radio Shack was not sure there was a market. for a personal computer.  That is putting it nicely.  They did not believe they would sell any. That is why they made a production run of 3500 since that is how many stores they had.  Per the words of Lew Kornfeld "When the computer fails, we will use it in the stores for inventory control". It was a publicity stunt to prove that Radio Shack could be a technology leader.


If any one wants to know more about what really happened and how the computer saved Radio Shack until they became afraid of IBM and abandoned the market. Please contact me.  

GuyWithGuitars
GuyWithGuitars

@DonaldH.French Well hiya Don! Thanks for the memories.... Since Radio Shack is fading fast, perhaps they could make gagillions by releasing a retro TRS-80 computer so the millions of now grey-haired TRS-80 users could relive their halcyon days of early personal computing! Wouldn't that be fun.....

JohnLaury
JohnLaury

I used both Model I's and Color Computers (all 3 versions), The color computer wasn't a bad machine.  In many ways it was as capable if not more (graphics for example), than the Model I/III's.  

AngelOke
AngelOke

Hi there. I really appreciate the points you made. I don't think I've actually thought about it in that way. I can really appreciate how you approached the subject matter and what you said really gave me a new perspective. Thanks for taking the time to write this all out.

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enchantedneuron
enchantedneuron

Thank you so much for this excellent piece of computer history documentation. As a 27 year old man who grew up using the computer I've always made a point of reading in detail about each and every computer system that existed in computer history. These sorts of documents are priceless and so valuable for the handful of us who are dead set on understanding everything possible about interaction experience and user interface design long term. There are lessons in each of these types of systems that came along; individual decisions were made differently and there's so much value in understanding them. You give a perfect entryway to understanding the TRS-80 in this article and I'll definitely be looking in detail at the museum and the blog you linked to. 
Great piece. Just perfect. Thank you so much.

DonaldH.French
DonaldH.French

The story is correct, I did it, the original computer was to be a solder project because it was easier to attempt to get it accepted that a full computer. That was changed after a clock ProjectBoard was retuned because it would not work. The customer had soldered everything together  in one big solder mess. Steve and I made a push to get the full product in and keep the price at the same $199 for the CPU. It was done with things like no lower case characters and a software based equivalent of the Tarbell cassette driver, no hardware. We did it. the base CPU with keyboard, ram, BASIC in rom, and cassette interface sold for $199. It even had expansion capabilities.  The "Monitor" was an Mercedes Silver RCA TV from which we had removed the tuner. This monitor defined to color for the entire system because it was the only color it was available.

curriden
curriden

I bought my trs 80 model I  in 1980. For my senior project as an EE at cal poly, I made a voice recognition and voice synthesizer system. It would  recognize 12 words and say what ever you wanted to program it to. I boxed it all up and forgot about it. Now in 2013,
I pulled it out and it all works. Senior project and all. I bought a Spartan 3e xilinx FPGA board and recorded all of the old Cassettes into eeeprom and now I can load them without the cassette player. I have adventureland,haunted house , EDTASM, Nova, Duel, Micormovie, and several others. I have come out of the closet as a TRS-80 addict. I think it's time to share.  I think I just started. Where do i start?

LegitQuestions
LegitQuestions

Don't trash the Color Computer.   I was in Jr. High when it came out.  I didn't have any way to get my folks to drop a grand on a TRS-80 or an Apple.  They were willing to spring for the Color Computer, so thats what I had.  Sure it was under-powered, but it was significantly cheaper and who knew how important power and memory were back then. 

I used the Color Computer to teach myself Basic and I wrote a program to determine the types of procedures my dad did in his medical practice (he was a pediatrician).  Using superbills, I showed my dad what types of procedures he was doing and what types of procedures he should be doing to maximize his reimbursement.  Of course, he had no idea how to implement the information I was providing to him.  Who knew I was in the early stages of conceptualizing practice management and medical information management. 

Then I went to high school and off to college, leaving the Color Computer and my budding practice management business in the spare bedroom of my parent's house.  How I wish now that I had the foresight then to continue that interesting little experiment in practice management and medical economics that I started on that low powered little device.

So give the Color Computer its due - its where many of us got our first exposure to computers.

Grant Robertson
Grant Robertson

I did my very first "IT work" on a TRS-80 Model I. This would have been about 1976. I had just gotten my license and where did I go? To Radio Shack, of course, to play on the computer I could not afford to buy. Yes, those tape drives were unreliable unless you knew the trick I had figured out. You had to record the program on one volume setting and then play it back at a different setting. I marked those settings with tape and the tape drive never had a problem after that. Ahhh, life was so simple then.

avrguru
avrguru

Used a Model III (overclocked with a 4MHz Z-80 of course) to create some embedded firmware for an energy management system in the early '80's.  This system ran in buildings all over the world, and is actually still running today (believe it or not).  Fond memories of everything except the tape deck, which would actually erase tiny portions of your recorded program if it encountered a 'read' error during layback and it automatically stopped the motor in the tape deck (a design flaw in the tape deck, not actually anything in the computer, took me over a year to figure out what was going wrong).

allenhuffman
allenhuffman

The advantage the TRS-80 had over systems like the Apple II was you could find them. Radio Shack had a huge advantage there, even when I worked for them in the late 1980s. At that time, there were more Radio Shack's than McDonald's, and I used to joke that it was easier to find a place to buy a TRS-80 than a Big Mac.

KAPROIIAND8
KAPROIIAND8

Hearty congrats on TRS-80 article !

 

Harry,

 

So you know, if you do not, your article is very popular with those of us in vintage computing.

 

Tez of New Zealand alerted us on a special email list.

 

I responded as GADFRAN on the www.vintage-computer.com site.

 

All the best always, especially keeping the “real history” of computing crystal clear !

 

Frank

SE PA USA

SG1_Guy
SG1_Guy

Ahh, the memories...

At some point I owned at least one of all of them. Mod I, III, 4, II, 12, 16

I even had a 12 and a 16 connected to "monstrous" 5 megabyte hard drives. (monstrous in physical size, of course, not capacity.)

And naturally a Line Printer II, Massive daisy-wheel machine, that was.

The printer of desire was the Epson MX-80.

My Mod I started with 16k LII, upgraded to an EI, and maxed-out at 48k! Wow. 

By the time it was replaced entirely by a III then a 4, it was carrying 3 double-sided 80-track (720k!!) floppy drives. Some of our club members had hung Mistubishi 1.2 Megabyte drives on theirs! Amazing!

Let's not forget Leo Christopherson "invented" a method of making sounds  for games using a cheap (R.S.) amplifier plugged into the Mod I (or III) cassette port. Legend has it he offered the idea to R.S., and they blew him off as being a crank.

Dancing Demon proved them wrong!

But I will also say, at least among our "byte head" hobbyists, the Coco's (don't forget that teeny Sinclair-like thing either) were pretty universally derided as being more toy than "real" computer. Our "serious" TRS-80 crowd never embraced color until we went somewhat noisily into that night of IBM clone-dom...

Hector Ayala
Hector Ayala

My TRS-80 color computer II was my inspiration. I owe it my engineering degree!

Scott Adams
Scott Adams

One of the reasons for the missing lowercase was the chip used to provide the text had a funky lowecase A in it. I remember researching this and finding the chip specs. It really was built to have a weird character at that location!

They must have been able to buy a bunch of them free. When I wrote my first adventure game it originally had a Capital A whereever you might expect a lower case a. This was so it would properly display on machines with the lowercase after market option added!

Scott Adams

www.msadams.com

Boisy Pitre
Boisy Pitre

It's ironic that Mr. McCracken abhors the use of the term "Trash-80" while showing utter disrespect to one of Tandy's most beloved computers, the Color Computer (CoCo).  An otherwise good article has been blemished by his assertion that the CoCo was "cheesy and underpowered", and I presume that such comments stem from abject ignorance.  The CoCo was used by many people who got their start in computers, and was much more accessible (i.e. lest costly) than any of Tandy's other models.  It was indeed, Tandy's first "color" computer.  The Color Computer line also survived 10 years with the advent of the  CoCo 2 and CoCo 3.  The 6809 microprocessor was arguably a superior CPU to the Z-80, and to Tandy's credit, they exploited it with Microware's OS-9, a multitasking, multi-user operating system that was way ahead of its time.  Even today there are CoCo aficionados who still make software and hardware for the machine.  Is there a following for Model I users that parallels?  I doubt it, and I would suggest Mr. McCracken actually educate himself on this fascinating computer instead of deriding it in a paragraph.  Cheap shot, sir.

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Caias Ward
Caias Ward

I had a TRS-80, connected to a regular television.

jimmy kraktov
jimmy kraktov

I was working for a living when the TRS-80 was introduced. I knew nothing about computers, but knew, by the number of times it came up in discussions I had with the nerds of the day, that it must be pretty good stuff.

My last year in high-school I saw the computer room, which was bigger than the one room apartment I lived in. That whole room couldn't do much, as I recall. The teacher said that a job as a 'keypunch operator' was something that would guarantee employment for those who qualified. (do not fold bend staple or mutilate)

That was in 1967.

drcaius
drcaius

Don't give Radio Shack credit for the Model 100, it was just a rebranded Toshiba or Hitachi model

ERenger
ERenger

Several of my friends had TRS-80's and did some cool programming on them. The Commodore 64 was my first computer. I mostly played games with it, but I did do some programming as well. 

ApacheO_O
ApacheO_O

Back when radio shack was cool. Now you wonder how they even stay in business,the guys running it , don't  have a clue on how to run it,alienating their loyal fan base , basically shooting themselves in the testicles.   

trans
trans

Those were quality machines. They were really nice to use. But the C64 came along and basically put the nail in the coffin of every other consumer system. Unfortunately they were unable to compete with Apple in the school market or IBM in the business market --they lacked a solid vision.

Muriel Schlecht
Muriel Schlecht

I had several Radio Shack computers.  I loved using them, and I even liked the OS.  In fact, I believe Radio Shack was the first to include personal software with the purchase of a computer.  It was called "Deskmate" which I found extremely useful, practical, and easy to use.  The demise was the marketing genius of the Microsoft and Windows and the backroom deals with other computer manufacturers.  Back then I thought Deskmate was better.  Too bad they didn't have a chance to modify and improve the produc because of the Microsoft monopoly.  Apple's method was give  their compters away to schools and then "suck up" the money with over-priced software.  A parent wanting to provide their child with a home computer had no choice but to buy what they were using in school......provided, of course, they could afford one at all.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Apple II owners–those pompous, style-obsessed twits

Some things never change.

SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid

We had a Model II in our office.  Every 3 or 4 months, like clockwork, we had to take it in for the floppy disk drive heads to be "aligned." 

xprintman
xprintman

During about the same time, 1981, but apparently forgotten Texas Instruments had a sweet little home computer, the TI-99/4a, on the market.  I still have mine although it's all boxed up.  It's odd to speak in K's when we've since blown by megabytes to Gigabytes, but there was a time when it was a big (and expensive) deal to buy an add'l 12 K of RAM that came in a cartridge bigger than a hardcover novel.  Ah, memories!

PseudoNeo
PseudoNeo

September 1980, The small room behind the math class.  I started programming on a TRS-8o Model 1, No backup not even a tape drive.

Fastforward almost 32 years and I'm making 84k / year as a programmer but never went to college.  This computer changed my life.

Markgregory007
Markgregory007

It was called a Trash 80 because it was all plastic.  Not meant to insult users. I never owned a TRS-80.  However, I clearly recall visiting Radio Shack and seeing the computer. It was very cool.   Didn't it start out with 8 inch disks and drives?  I also remember the cool comic books, like the one you mentioned in your article. I wish I had one now.  Eventually, I bought a Tandy 1000, DOS compatible computer that ran Windows v. 1.0.   Pretty crappy imitation of MAC OS.  Kept the 1000 for a few years and then bought an Apple IIc.  

Zagros
Zagros

I loved the old TRS-80. I remember the nickname of the apple was quite a bit worse with a "cr" appended to the beginning of the corporate title. In any case, our family's three TRS-80s are STILL working (disk drives and everything) while every other computer bought since then by my family never seems to make it past about 5 years....

Blue-eyed Gal
Blue-eyed Gal

Somewhere in my parents' house is the mini-comic where Superman had some sort of kryptonite-induced brain fuzz, so a couple of kids with TRS-80s and a headset talked him through various physics problems as he attempted feats of derring-do. (As if his stunts had anything to do with real-world physics, but it was a cute idea).

RH
RH

I remember those!  The one I played around with in high school even had a cassette tape drive LOL.

lylejk
lylejk

When I was in High School, I was in the computer club (yes, we had computer clubs back in 1980; lol). Our school had just one computer; it was a TRS-80. lolAmazing at that time. A year later, Dad got me a CoCo and 2 years later a CoCo3. Fantastic computers they both were for the time. Learned some Basic and had fun learning. The exploration is probably what keeps the hackers interested now, but the personal computer was still more then in it's infancy when I was in High School. Fun time; now we have to worry about things that folks back then didn't even have a clue about. Oh well. :)

Bevan Bennett
Bevan Bennett

Ah yes. My school also had TRS-80's (and a lone Apple II, for Wildcatting) in the mid-late 80's.

We even had a BASIC programming self-taught course based on it, but they only had course notes and projects up to the graphics chapter of the manual. As a special deal (in 6th grade, mind you) a friend and I -wrote- the missing course projects (and, perhaps, looked at ASCII-based ZZ-top album art and porn  in our extra time).

Dave Newton
Dave Newton

Not coincidentally, today I was telling someone I wrote my first code 35 years ago, although I wrote it on paper for six months before we got the actual hardware.

Jacques Cousteau
Jacques Cousteau

I know they don't employ editors anymore anywhere, but please try to be a little careful with the grammar. This hurts.

RobertSF
RobertSF

Ah, memories! I had a TRS-80 Model I, and I greatly resented that they came out with a model III. Oh, well, that's the past. :)