William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

First Computers, Radios & The Death Of Radio Shack

trs80

There it is. The TRS-80 Model I—with cassette storage! Z-80 microprocessor; over 4000 bytes of user memory, a.k.a. RAM, which—I shudder to write it—is well over 30,000 bits! I can’t recall, nor can I now discover (though I have not tried very hard) how much could be stored on the cassette player. Operating it was tricky.

The school had the TRS 80 in the algebra room (we had a Pong machine at home) and it was on it I learned to program in Basic. About six of us (it was a small school) would take turns copying game programs printed in the back of BYTE magazine. Line after line after line after line of GOSUBs, PEEKs, POKEs, LPOSs, and the ubiquitous RUNs.

I still recall the first missile program. Press the space bar launched a missile toward some vaguely blockish object at the top of the screen. What an anticlimax to learn that the target “moved” by erasing and repainting itself every cycle. But neat, too, because we learned to modify the code to make the target suddenly appear at odd spots.Was this the RND function? Or was it RANDOM?

The most exciting game was a “casino” (I can’t recall the exact name) which would allow bets, wins, and losses as you’d expect. But what made this slick was that you were meant to bring an AM radio tuned to an unused station next to the computer. As the “slot machine” would spin the radio would make staticy clackety-brrrr-clackety-brrrr noises. Just like you were in Vegas!

Our cadre became a hit with the girls, if you can believe it. I mean, they would come to us geeks for help with their homework. Hey. Whatever it took.

They don’t have them anymore. Computers are everywhere, but as of two days ago not Radio Shacks. And not so many radios, neither.

The bankrupt stores are still in place, but as the WSJ reported, they’re already started their store-closing sales. Gizmodo says that some of the storefronts will be snatched by Sprint and others by Amazon. Amazon bookstores?

Radio Shack used to sell computers and, if you can believe it, radios. I went into one of the stores a couple of months back and could only find one. They also carried radio parts. I once bought a variable capacitor there. And even one or two shortwave antennas. Lots of connectors and other radio doodads, too. They had drawers of diodes, resistors, capacitors, LEDs, and even a chip or two. Gradually all these things were shifted further and further back, finally disappearing. The place in its death throes becomes nothing but cell phones and television extras.

You see, I am a ham. No, not that kind. K2JM to be specific. Amateur radio.

My first radio was a hand-held 9-volt transistor bulky AM made-in-Japan-when-that-was-not-a-compliment job, a gift from my maternal grandfather. I snuck (uses, snuck) it into school and surreptitiously listened to Tigers games. When we moved Up North, I’d lie awake in bed and listen to far off stations. WJR, of course; Chicago, Nashville, Baltimore, even once Atlanta. It was incredibly romantic the way the stations would fade in and out. Felt like spying.

When I first went into the service I was assigned to work an afternoon shift. I was a crypto guy and had access to racks of radios. This was when I discovered shortwave. Sitting in San Antonio, I could hear Germany! Cuba! Taiwan! Numbers stations! This was pre-Internet, folks. This was in the days when you paid extra to call people out of your area code, and really had to pony up to call out of country. The real fun was writing down the “contact” and sending a request to the station for a QSL card, decorative postcards which confirmed your contact. I still have a book of them.

It was in San Antonio I met my “Elmer” (oh how I do not love that name) who loaned me an old Heathkit on which I became proficient on CW—that is, Morse code. My first ham license was KA5YHN, which I can still tap out at blistering speed. Later, when we PCSed to Okinawa, I joined MARS, the Military Affiliate Radio Station and got a Japanese ticket.

Now that I live in the city, I don’t do much. I Maybe some sporadic 2 meters, which is not unlike talking on a cell phone. And there is no romance in that. I miss HF. I’d rather head down to the old Radio Shack and pick up a balun and see if I could talk to somebody in Botswana. Or I could just log on and do the same.

Sigh. The world has become so small.

18 Comments

  1. I remember when Radio Shack sold vacuum tubes and had a tube tester machine in the store, which I used to fix an old television set that my parents gave me when I was first married. Later I gutted the console and turned it into furniture, where it still sits in the corner of our living room. My wireless router and computer modem sits on top of it. Times change.

  2. My computer class was very small, maybe four of five students, and as the boys commandeered the machine (there might have been two machines, but there were at least two boys), I had to write my code by hand to enter later when I had a chance. The teacher thought that my method was “unusual” but he was powerless in dislodging the boys.

  3. They had drawers of diodes, resistors, capacitors, LEDs, and even a chip or two. Ex military surplus. When that ran out they had to buy plastic wrap stuff….10 times or a hundred times more expensive. My father’s first digital calculator cost $350+, someone sent me one for free last fall (I don’t use it, I have Excel). Jack Kilby still my hero.

  4. You folk may be feel soooo old.

    I started in home electronics with a crystal set where I could chase stations by moving the whisker cautiously around on a chunk of galena.

    Some years later at Uni I vividly recall the x-ray crystallography research students sitting up all night waiting for their turn on the hand cranked calculators to undertake their structural analyses.

    But I was delighted to see in an auction a couple of years back Buzz Aldrin’s slide rule that he took in Apollo 11 as he and his companions needed back up for the flight computer: http://historical.ha.com/itm/transportation/buzz-aldrin-s-apollo-11-slide-rule-flown-to-the-moon/a/669-25368.s

  5. Briggs

    February 7, 2015 at 11:38 am

    All,

    This series is apropos (my sister had that Dynamite 8).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGb8KXQGgOQ&list=PLvtqbQDfFlbJmT02Z95IclJ91a0fuc3Ev&index=1

  6. I “built” a Heathkit/Zenith version of the TRS-80. The cassette recorder held a massive 64K of memory. (Yes kids, that’s a K.)
    I upgraded to to an innovative 5 1/4 inch floppy disk drive. The early floppys held (I think) 180K. They were replaced, almost immediately, by “double density” drives, holding (no surprise) 360K. We were in the big time.
    The disks were, in theory, one-sided, but you usually could cut out a (second) notch and use the back, as well.

  7. My first computer c. 1979 was an Ohio Scientific II packaged as a single circuit board and keyboard unit with 2K RAM and powered by the 6502 CPU. It connected to an old TV for display and a cassette player for storage. Learned BASIC and even made a few dollars writing simple programs that were published in Compute! magazine. Never owed a “Trash-80” (the nerd snobbery started way back) or any other Tandy/Radio Shack machines, but they made the company stock valuable for a while. Alas, poor Radio Shack. Gone the way of buggy-whip retailers…

  8. When I worked in digital signal processing we built our own computers using the 8080 microprocessor. The cassette recorder was our storage device and we had tiny basic and tiny C in rom. When the Zilog Z80 microprocessor came out we were in awe because it had 25,000 transistors and would operate at a blazing clock frequency of 5 MHz, We even put one on a variable frequency oscillator and got it to work around 7 MHz. Those were the fun days. I used to buy lots of parts at Radio Shack but the quality deteriorated. A few years ago I bought some transistors that were supposed to have a minimum current gain of 200 and most of them were below that and useless for my project.

  9. I also had a TRS 80 as my first home computer. Who knew that Apple was shortly going to change the world.

    Over the years I found Radio Shack stuff to be of mixed quality, and that may be gracing it. Still if you wanted to get a certain size wire they probably had it. I guess we always knew that one day they would fold their tents and disappear, and that day has come. Too bad they never got “too big to fail.”

  10. Our first computer ca. 1982 was a Sinclair ZX80. Same microprocessor but “some assembly required”. Remember using an old 11″ BW portable TV as the monitor.

    Mrs. M was (and is) the home IT expert, and I recall her coming home somewhat flustered after a fruitless search for Byte magazine at the big downtown newsstand, which had the largest selection of magazines in the region.

    Seems the local clientele wasn’t aware of the magazine’s subject matter.

  11. Your accompanying sentence to the Sigh, made me think that you are right at so many levels. It also explains why our argumentation is so shrill. Another sigh.
    BTW coming in from proud slide rule days to buying a 10 Meg hard drive for almost $800 , after my first real job, and wondering how I could possibly fill it up. From that perspective things are too bloated

  12. I used to program Z80’s and 6502’s in the good old days, and wrote various books on the subject. Occasionally I google my name and ‘Z80’ to see how the internet changes over time. All the reviews are gone now. Oddly, on Ebay someone is trying to sell one of my old textbooks for 13 or so Euro. Why anyone would need that sort of thing today is strange. If there was nuclear war and we had to start over, maybe.

  13. I remember trying to solder a pocket radio when I was a decade or two younger. Alas, I messed something up and it never worked. I just recently visited my nearby radio-shack looking for some replacement capacitors for my TV (yeah I know! Why spend $5 and a little bit of time to fix something when you can just go to the store and buy something brand new for $500?). They didn’t have what I needed and I remember thinking it was absurd that radio-shack, of all places, wouldn’t have these electronic circuit parts.

    Yet, with all this technology we have today, we are even less capable than we were back in the day. What happens when it all gets wiped out via an EMP or a concentrated attack by terrorists or others? How many people will perish because they simply don’t know how to start a fire, operate a generator, or dig an outhouse? I would shudder to think, but then again, I know how to do these things. Heck if it happened the left would get their desired population cleansing, and those left would undoubtedly be those of us who think it important to be self-sufficient; so we would win too, by kicking the lefties off their high-horse.

  14. My smartphone has a FM radio. The software won’t allow the radio to turn on unless my head-phones are plugged in.
    I had never touched a live working computer until after I had graduated from high school, although my class mates and I had been inside of one during a field trip to the University of British Columbia.

  15. swordfishtrombone

    February 8, 2015 at 6:26 am

    “The Onion”, 2007 – “Even CEO Can’t Figure Out How RadioShack Still In Business.”

  16. There is a very successful and relatively new retail chain in Australia called JB Hi Fi. They sell computers, tablets, mobile phones, video games, movies, PC accessories, video game consoles and accessories, Apple gear and accessories, speakers and stereo systems (typically all bluetooth compatible), and all the other popular toys consumers like to buy these days. There was no reason why Radio Shack had to go under, except for incompetent management.

  17. Here in Australia we had ‘Tandy’, the name local name for Radio Shack. But it was always up against Dick Smith Electronics, which tended to be somewhat more hard core than Tandy.

    I bought my first computer in, I think, 1982. I’d already learned to program, after a fashion, on a Texas Instruments TI-58 calculator, but I felt that as a nerd I was being left behind in lacking an understanding of these weird things called ‘computers’. It was from Dick Smith and was a TRS80 clone. Built-in cassette storage, 16kB of RAM, 12kB of ROM with MS BASIC built in.

    It came with some games — Broderbund Galactic Empire (on cassette) was fun for a couple of hours, when it would crash and all your efforts would be lost. But the wisest purchase was book on how to program (in BASIC). No longer would computers be a mystery.

  18. First PC was the TRS-80 Level II with 16,000 bytes of RAM!!1! And two colours, black AND white!

    Yes, I remember fiddling with the volume control on the cassette player to prevent misread data. From memory it took about 5 minutes to fill the 16k off cassette. Used the AM radio trick for games.

    Remember programming one day and hitting the “out of memory” error.

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