Radio Shack’s First PC: 45 Years TRS-80 – How-To Geek | Start Classified

Steven Stengel / Benj Edwards

45 years ago, Radio Shack released the TRS-80 Micro Computer System, a 1977 personal computer that, along with computers from Apple and Commodore, ushered in an era of low-cost personal computers. Here’s what was special about it.

An affordable, ready-to-use computer

On August 3, 1977, Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80 Micro Computer System for $599.95 – about $2,904 today, adjusted for inflation. This complete system included a main unit with a built-in keyboard, a tape recorder and a monochrome monitor. After the later introduction of the Model II, this first model became known as the TRS-80 Model I. In 1977 the price of the TRS-80 was a big deal at $599.95. For comparison, the Apple II sold for $1298 with 4K RAM (that’s a whopping $6284 today), and it didn’t include a monitor or storage device.

The TRS-80 microcomputer system in a Radio Shack catalogue, 1977.
The TRS-80 as it appeared in a 1977 Radio Shack catalogue. radio room

But you always get what you pay for: the original TRS-80 was a fairly primitive machine. Under the hood, the TRS-80 used its Z-80 CPU clocked at 1.77 MHz and contained only 4 kilobytes (KB) of RAM. The video could only display 64 columns and 16 rows of monochrome text (all uppercase) with no support for true bitmap graphics (although by using a blocky text character you could create a 128×48 pixel display). It also didn’t include any sound hardware, but many programs used a trick to output simple sounds through the cassette port.

A child using a TRS-80 computer near a Christmas tree while his parents look on.
Excerpt from a 1978 TRS-80 advertisement. radio room

The TRS-80 got its name as a combination of Radio Shack’s parent company (Tandy), Radio Shack itself, and his choice of CPU, the Zilog Z-80. Translate the name as “Tandy Radio Shack Z-80” and it makes sense. Unfortunately for Radio Shack, the computer soon earned the derogatory nickname “Trash-80” because it was easier to say and had the added bonus of a built-in filing feature (that the computer was “trash” compared to machines like the Apple II). To this day, the Trash 80 moniker bothers TRS 80 fans, so it’s not a friendly or endearing name.

Despite its limitations, the Model I included enough features to excite many people who wanted to own their own ready-to-use computer system to use from the comfort of their own home. While the “personal computer” was still a very new concept, many early PCs were only available in kit form. Even having a fully functional computer (for $599.95) was something of a technological marvel back then.

Part of an advertisement for the TRS-80 Model I that appeared in the November 1977 issue of Byte magazine.
radio room

Thanks to Radio Shack’s extensive network of 5,000 stores across the United States, the Model I was a huge hit from the start, selling 10,000 units in its first month and 100,000 units in 1978, making up a significant portion of the fledgling microcomputer market at the time. It inspired a loyal fanbase that continued throughout the release of Radio Shack’s future PC systems over the next decade.

What was it like using a TRS-80?

When you bought a TRS-80 microcomputer system, you had everything you needed to write and store programs. The TRS-80 Model I included the BASIC programming language in ROM (and a very user-friendly manual), allowing for relatively easy programming right out of the box. With the supplied cassette drive you can load or save data on a normal audio cassette. If you’ve bought an expansion port and floppy disk drive, you can save and load data much faster – but the combination of both units costs more than the original TRS-80 system.

A man with a TRS-80 on a desk.  Part of an advertisement for the TRS-80 Model I that appeared in the November 1977 issue of Byte magazine.
radio room

You can also purchase software on cartridge or diskette for your Model I computer. Popular applications have included word processors like Scripsit and Electric Pencil, spreadsheet apps like VisiCalc, and games like star trek and android nim– not to mention text adventure games galore. In 1979 Leo Christopherson programmed a famous animated demo called The dancing demonwhich quickly became the pride of many TRS-80 owners after being released by Radio Shack.

Still, the TRS-80 has a mediocre to lackluster reputation compared to other early PCs like the Apple II. We asked Harry McCracken — an editor at Fast Company and a former TRS-80 user — if he found the TRS-80 Model I to be flawed or subpar. He says its lukewarm reputation is a misconception, partly due to the computer’s nickname. “This whole re-association of “Trash-80″ as a supposedly affectionate nickname for a crap computer misled people about what the TRS-80 looked like,” says McCracken. “The TRS-80 didn’t have the glamor of the Apple II, but it sold better in the early days and was incredibly useful.”

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The TRS-80 Legacy

The TRS-80 Model I proved very popular, inspiring at least 16 computers branded “TRS-80” over the next decade. Of these, only the TRS-80 Model III and Model 4 series were backward compatible with the Model I. The Model II started its own parallel branch, as did the TRS-80 Color Computer series. Here is a list of the main TRS-80 models that Radio Shack has released over the years:

In 1984, Radio Shack began selling the Tandy 1000, which took its computer products to a very successful IBM PC compatible branch. The “Tandy” brand took over full-time on new PCs in 1985, including some successor models to the TRS-80 line such as the Tandy 102.

As for the TRS-80 Model I? After a successful 3-year run, Radio Shack ceased production of the Model I in January 1981 because it did not comply with new FCC rules. But it still made a huge impact and made plenty of fans along the way.

Happy Birthday TRS-80!

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