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Wait for ages, then three come along > Retailing computers - Tandy

We primed the pump.

Steve Leininger

On this page:  L for leather – Trash sells – TRS-80

L for leather

Way back in 1919 Norton Hinckley and Dave Tandy started the Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company to supply leather and other goods to shoe repair shops around Fort Worth.  After WWII the rationing of shoes led to the preferential supply of leather to the military so Tandy’s son, Charles David Tandy, took the business into more of a general leathercraft operation. Hinckley was dropped from the company name and it became Tandy Leather Company.

By the mid ‘50s there were more than sixty stores in over thirty states. Founded two years later than Tandy in 1921, Radio Shack was created in Boston by brothers, Theodore and Milton Deutschmann; they had emigrated from London.  Their plan was to exploit the amateur radio or ham radio sector and early success was based upon their supply of military surplus equipment.  The company was named after the room on a boat where the radio equipment was stored – it was hoped to imply something of a professional-to- amateur customer crossover.

By the 1940s Radio Shack had a small chain of shops with a mail order catalogue operation and was branching into the hi-fi business selling own-label products.  It ran into trouble in the 1960s and was heading for insolvency when Charles D Tandy acquired the operation for $300,000 and renamed it the Tandy Corporation.

Tandy had caught the electronics bug. Stores were initially given the implausible name of ‘Tandy Radio Shack and Leather’ but by the mid-1970s the non-electronics side of the business was discarded.  Tandy Corporation expanded the number of Radio Shacks in the USA and launched both in the UK and Australia as Tandy.

RANDOM ACCESS MOMENT: What’s in a name?  Radio Shack, they weren’t shacks and they sold more than radios.  In the UK we had Radio Rentals and the one thing they did not do was to rent radios.  Though Selfridges does live up to its name! In the mid-70s Radio Shack scored strongly with the CB Radio enthusiasts.

CB had perhaps one of the most dramatic adoption curves for a product, from 0% to 20% in just a few years at the start of the 1970s.  Given this fillip, Tandy’s range of products expanded broadly.

In Tandy’s West Coast operation, Don French, one of its buyers, was watching first-hand as Silicon Valley exploded exponentially around him.  He suggested that Radio Shack should consider entering the PC market.  John Roach the VP of Manufacturing was on a visit to Silicon Valley and he and French called on National Semiconductor on a ‘fishing trip’. While there they had a fateful meeting with 24-year-old Steve Leininger, another Homebrew Computer Club luminary, who was at the time developing TinyBASIC for National’s SC/MP microprocessor (Simple Cost-effective Micro Processor), pronounced scamp; SC/MP would be the basis of the Science of Cambridge MK14.

They tried to get Leininger’s contact details while there but National Semiconductor refused to release them.  By chance, later that same evening, they met up with him again while he was working at a Byte Shop.  Impressed they invited him down to Fort Worth where he was hired on the spot. Initially it was proposed to launch a kit computer, but soon Leininger was charged with developing a complete turnkey personal computer system that could be sold through Radio Shack at a marketable price – and in volume.

This was new thought at the time – the design of a full-featured PC that would be produced in volume and handled and supported by a large and successful retail chain.  The original goal was that it should be created to sell at a $199 price point.

Trash sells – TRS-80

Leininger worked alone, not in a garage but in an old saddle factory in Fort Worth, to develop the TRS-80 (Tandy Radio Shack) personal computer; undeservedly known by many as the Trash-80.

He based it around the Zilog Z80 microprocessor and it featured a full-size keyboard, a monitor and a cassette deck.  At its eventual $599 price-point it would represent the most expensive item in the Radio Shack inventory.

The TRS-80 was launched in August 1977 at a press conference in New York City which proved to be a bad choice of date and venue. The Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, or Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation, chose that very day to set off two bombs in NY City.  These were in a Defense Department facility on Madison Avenue and the Mobil building on East 42nd Street and resulted in the loss of one life. In addition the terrorists warned that bombs were also placed in the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building; 100,000 office workers had to be evacuated.  A total of eighty false-alarm calls were made in the demand for independence to be granted to Puerto Rico. It was impossible for Tandy to command much press attention against that busy headline-making day.

The initial production run for the TRS-80 was set at 3,500 which was also the number of Radio Shack and Tandy stores.  Its president realised that if the product did not sell through, then at least it would still 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 particularly exciting.  Initially supplied as white-out-of-black and later green-out-of-black, it displayed just 16 lines of 32 or 64 characters. The TRS-80 could however differentiate between upper and lower-case characters in its memory, although initially lower case could not be displayed.  This apparently saved $1.50 in parts which would reflect in a retail impact of $5.  When the target price was $199 this saving was of course significant. Later this was resolved by a $59 upgrade that enabled lower-case to be displayed 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 on the Apple IIe to have a standard lower-case system. The keyboard on the Model I also contained the motherboard but this was found to have something of a bounce problem; one keystroke would deliver a multiple display of the character to the screen.

Initially printing was a further issue as it required the addition of a relevant expansion interface that was relatively expensive, priced from $299.  This was due to the card being rather comprehensive and quite sophisticated.  It offered an increased memory of 48k and provided a floppy-disk controller able to handle up to four drives.  It provided a parallel printer port as well as an optional serial RS-232 port, plus a further cassette port and even a real-time clock.  All of this was in the one card.

Later Radio Shack introduced a much simpler printing-only interface and also a low-cost electrostatic screen-grabbing printer.