Radio Shack was a common site in the 70’s and 80’s across the American retail landscape. Little stores that sat unpretentiously in strip malls, waiting for their customers to come wandering in to either gawk at random technology or make a beeline for the back of the store where the real hi-tech lived. Things like transistors, capacitors, wires and other electronic mumbo-jumbo that only the elite few knew what to do with. But, on the other hand, the only store that carried that crazy stuff was a Radio Shack. If you didn’t have one in your city, you’d be left to the vagaries of mail-order and a long delay hoping your order went through.
So how DID this odd little store introduce what became such a mainstream computer? Tandy corporation made a bold and unusual move in 1977 — they introduced a fully assembled, desktop computer to a marketplace hungry for it. Those Radio Shack stores, which served a niche market of electronic hobbyists quickly became a hotbed of computing. The TRS-80 wasn’t highly stylized like the Apple II, it didn’t have fancy graphics, and certainly wasn’t powerful enough to target a business market. But it was CHEAP (starting at just $599.00), it was assembled, ready-to-go with BASIC, and it was AVAILABLE!
When we look back at the “Trash 80” it certainly gives us good reasons for that moniker. It was cheap, looked cheap, felt cheap… ran slowly, and didn’t have any fancy graphics or other bells and whistles. But dangit – it had BASIC, and that meant you could write your own games and applications. It’s hard to convey this aspect to a modern audience, but before I had my own computer I wanted to get my hands on any machine – just so I could start experimenting already. The Apple II was the Cadillac of the Trinity of ’77… it was the obvious best choice, but WOW was it pricey. TRS-80 Model I, starting with 4Kb of RAM but expandable to 16K (when you could afford it) was the easy-entry choice.
And so this strange brew of availability, (just visit any Radio Shack), the cheap cost-of-entry, a programmable BASIC right out of the box and future expandability… all seemed to contribute to it’s early jumpstart in the marketplace. It’s important to note that there really was very little in the way of commercial software or support groups by the end of 1977. Almost all of 1977 was letting the cat out of the bag, and introducing these new assembled machines to quickly growing demand. We can see, however, that by the end of 1978 we have a magazine being introduced (Softside) catering to the TRS-80. Other longer running magazines like Creative Computing show growing software collections for the PET and the TRS-80, but Apple is still fairly obscure. And sales figures would also show that TRS-80 was the dominant computer for a few years after its introduction.
A number of early important video game titles were first released on the TRS-80! Scott Adam’s began his very first adventure (pun intended) on the quirky thing. Lance Micklus created the first adventure game (Dog Star Adventure) in BASIC and published the source code in Softside Magazine, May 1979. It became a template for many aspiring young adventurers to try to program their own first games. And indeed… when you’re working with nothing but text, the TRS-80 didn’t suffer so dramatically against other competitors.
Eventually as the market matured, and software improved the many flaws of the TRS-80 began to become much more obvious and its market share began to shrink… but that’s a story for another time. For now, I just wanted to salute the TRS-80 for what it achieved when it did. Trashy… sure… but as they say, one man’s trash…
And just so you can see what a game was like on the TRS-80… here’s a nice example of a BASIC implementation of Star Wars. Or, at least parts of Star Wars. That’s something we’ll see a lot of in early computing — not much worry about licensing or using established trademarks without consent.