How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution
By James Grahame
Priming The Pump tells the tale of Radio Shack's TRS-80, the first complete off-the-shelf microcomputer system. Designer Steve Leininger worked alone to build the prototype TRS-80 at a cost of less than $150,000. To keep the retail price low, they modified a black & white television set to serve as a monitor. That explains the machine's signature black-and-silver color scheme, since it's what RCA had on hand.
What happened next jump-started the home computing industry. "John Roach, Tandy's product manager, got an agreement from Charles Tandy to build 3500 units after Leininger demonstrated the prototype; this was exactly the number of stores they had -- Roach figured if no one bought the computers, at least the stores could use them.
Don French, a true believer, predicted they'd sell 50,000 the first year and urged the company to gear up the factory for mass production. Tandy managers, thinking they could never sell that many, were surprised when, in the weeks after the introduction, the Tandy switchboard was paralyzed with over 15,000 calls from people wanting to order a TRS-80. In the first year, over 250,000 people went on waiting lists to buy a TRS-80."
The Zilog Z80-based TRS-80 Model I was shipped as a ready-to-use $599 system. The main board was built into the keyboard unit and shipped with a plug-in B&W monitor and portable cassette recorder for storage.
The base unit could support up to 16K of memory, although an expansion dock (shown above) was available that increased memory to 48K and controlled two floppy drives. I loved the crisp 64 character x 16 line display, although there were no lower case characters in ROM. The cassette-based storage was somewhat finicky, because you had to be careful to set the volume just right to ensure a successful program load.
Radio Shack introduced a number of popular machines throughout the 1980s, but they eventually found it impossible to compete with a tide of inexpensive IBM-PC clones. Sadly, the TRS-80 name is now ancient history and Radio Shack markets a "me too" lineup of name-brand PCs and notebooks.
Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution [also available from Amazon]