Happy Birthday, TRS-80

This Sunday will be the twentieth anniversary of the birth of the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model One, the world's first mass-marketed computer. It was announced in New York City on August 3, 1977.

Although many date the personal computer revolution from 1981 when IBM introduced its PC, it was the TRS-80--affectionately known as the Trash 80--that really started the ball rolling. And if you have one sitting around gathering dust somewhere, you can consider yourself a genuine PC pioneer.

John V. Roach is now chairman and CEO of Tandy Corporation. But back in the mid-1970s he was vice president of manufacturing, and instrumental in taking the TRS-80 from concept to finished computer.

"The concept of having the PC was talked about inside the company in the mid-'70s," recalls Roach from his office at Tandy Center in Fort Worth, Texas. "We would have been glad to buy a PC manufactured by a traditional computer manufacturer, but none of them believed that PCs were a product anyone had any use for. So when we launched on August 3, 1977, it wasn't like the whole world was sitting around waiting for a PC or that there was a lot of fanfare and excitement."

To put how far hardware has come into perspective, the TRS-80 Model 1 had a Z-80 processor running at 1.77 MHz and 4K--that's kilobytes, not megabytes--of RAM that you could expand to 52K. A hard disk wasn't available for the TRS-80; neither was a modem nor CD-ROM drive, which didn't exist yet. And there was just one application available, initially.

You got all that for the ground-breaking price of $599.95. Times have changed.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that the Radio Shack name no longer appears on PCs. During the 1980s Radio Shack was a major distributor of PCs to consumers, selling 500,000 to 600,000 machines a year. Today, Tandy sells PCs in its Radio Shack stores from other familiar names, such as IBM.

As distribution channels changed to superstores and mail order in the '90s, and product development cycles became much shorter, Radio Shack really had to scale back its retailing of computers because the profitability was not there," explains Roach. "You never like to see that name disappear from the market; on the other hand, from an economic, financial, and rational point of view ,it was the only smart thing to do."

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked at Radio Shack headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, in the late 1970s, writing manuals for the TRS-80 Model II.

Those days are long gone, but they're not forgotten. Happy birthday, TRS-80!

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