05/12/2021

054 – Retailing computers – 1977

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We primed the pump.  Steve Leininger

At Tandy, Don French, a West Coast buyer, watched Silicon Valley explode exponentially around him; he suggested its Radio Shack operation should consider entering the PC market.

French and John Roach, VP of Manufacturing, called on National Semiconductor on a ‘fishing trip’.  They met 24-year-old Steve Leininger, another Homebrew Computer Club luminary, who was developing TinyBASIC for National’s SC/MP microprocessor.

They tried to get Leininger’s details but National Semiconductor refused to release them.  By chance, later that evening they met him again working at a Byte Shop.  They invited him to Fort Worth where he was hired on the spot.

It was originally proposed to launch a computer kit, but Leininger was then charged with developing a complete PC system to be sold through Radio Shack in volume.  The original goal was that this should be at a $199 price point.

Leininger worked alone in an old saddle factory developing the Tandy Radio Shack personal computer, the TRS-80.  He used a Zilog Z80 microprocessor with a full-size keyboard, a monitor and a cassette deck.  At its eventual $599 price-point it represented the most expensive item in the Radio Shack inventory.

Launched in August 1977, its initial production run was 3,500, which was the number of Radio Shack and Tandy stores.  The president concluded that if the product did not sell through, then at least it would be able to run each store’s inventory.  Any fears proved groundless when 10,000 units sold in the first month!

The video monitor was not exciting; supplied as white-out-of-black and green-out-of-black.  The keyboard on the Model I also contained the motherboard but this had something of a bounce problem – one keystroke would deliver a multiple display of the character.

The TRS-80 could however differentiate between upper and lower-case characters in its memory, although initially lower case could not be displayed.  Later this was resolved by a $59 upgrade enabling lower-case to be shown on the monitor.  The Radio Shack TRS-80 III was launched with fully integral lower-case by 1980; by comparison it took Apple until 1983 and Apple IIe to have standard lower-case.

Leininger had worked with Li-Chen Wang’s Tiny BASIC and selected it for the TRS-80.  His version had a few additional Tandy-produced input-output features and was supported by a very good manual.  Level II BASIC was later released as a Microsoft-derived version which had to be squeezed into its 12k ROM.

The TRS-80 team attracted a wealth of software, from arcade games to business applications; these included VisiCalc, a bulletin board system and the TRS-DOS operating system.

The Federal Communications Commission is the authority in the US that creates and enforces the use of the airwaves for the entire radio frequency spectrum.  In October 1979 it issued a new set of rules for personal computers.

The TRS-80 Model I was found to emit significant RF interference and was declared in breach of FCC regulations.  The model was phased out following a Tandy board decision in January 1981; but not before some 200,000 units had been sold in its short four years of life.

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