Wow, was it only 35 years ago???
So, let’s get in the “way back” machine and set it for 35 years ago … (gears grinding, images flashing, etc.) … OK, it’s now August 3, 1977. We are in the middle of disco music, with the movie Saturday Night Fever due to release on December 14 with the BeeGee’s soundtrack. The original Star Wars is packing them in (it was released on May 25th). Computing was either done by mathematicians in an industrial setting with large IBM mainframes using punch-cards to program, or or young propeller-heads where one assembled a computer from a Heathkit or some other kit. A couple months ago, a little known company called Apple Computer released the Apple II computer (interestingly trademarked as Apple ][ ), which was indeed one of the first (if not the first) mass-produced PCs, However, the Apple II had little to no channels for distribution, so though the historical script in the 21st century is that the Apple II was integral to the beginning of the PC age, the truth is that it wasn’t widely known or widely available when it first came out.
Today, August 3, 1977 is a watershed date when the first mass-produced AND widely available PC is announced: Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80 computer. (BTW: The term personal computer or PC will be coined when IBM comes out with their PC in 1981.) What made this so special was that it was a fully assembled (w/monitor) computer that was sold nationwide through Tandy’s 3,000 Radio Shack stores.
The device had an 8 bit processor (now processors are 64 bits), 4 KB (4,096 bytes) of memory a 12″ monitor and a tape cassette for data and programs. It cost $599. With the expansion module, one could add up to 48 KB. It came with the BASIC programming language which allowed the average person to program the machine. Though the original version of BASIC was in essence free-ware, the eventual version that required 16 KB to work was provided by a really tiny company named Microsoft.
Tandy projected that they would sell 1,000 to 3,000 units yearly but when they hit the stores in September, they sold 10,000 in 6 weeks! Unfortunately, the Model I had a problem with RF emissions (which caused TVs and radios to buzz when the computer was on), which led to the fairly quick replacement with the Model II. This problem led to the moniker the TRASH-80. In spite of that, Tandy sold over 200,000 during it’s lifetime, accounting for 35% of Radio Shack sales by 1984.
The reason that this anniversary intrigued me was that though I didn’t own one, I was working at a Radio Shack store in Dallas, TX when they came out. They came into our store and I played with it, programming a number of stupid things, and it was captivating. A year later, while I was working on my Masters of Music degree, remembering the fun I had programming this very primitive computer I took a couple programming courses (BASIC and FORTRAN), which led me to my career in the software industry.
So, let’s salute this very innovative computer (and highly risky business move). Though a $5 calculator is more complex than this device, it was one of the pioneering devices that helped to usher in the age of personal computing.