Where would the world be without personal computers? On February 2, 1977, the TRS-80 was approved for production and sale at Radio Shack, setting off a digital revolution that could not have possibly been predicted 45 years later. On This Week in Tech History, Faith and Cameron talk about the birth of the personal computer, the boon of the digital age, and where the growth goes from here.
Twins. I got my knockoff Stanley cup from Amazon.
This one is a Drinko from Amazon.
Radio Shack commercial actor 1 (00:16):
For those parents who realize that $600 isn’t too much to spend to expand their child’s world, Radio Shack has the perfect gift. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC). The TRS-80 computer: the most significant investment a parent can make. Programs for your child’s education or your business finance and home use. Let your children discover tomorrow’s technology today. The TRS-80: the biggest name in little computers. Only at Radio Shack: a Tandy company.
Cameron, I’m thrilled that you’re my partner in this, because this is our first episode of this like, new thing we’re doing called “This Week in Tech History,” and I can’t think of anyone better to do it with who’s just like, curious and insightful.
Yeah, it was a little bit random of a topic at first, and then once I started kinda looking through it–
This is all new for me. I’m excited for our like, three dedicated listeners. I’m excited for them to realize how like, not with like, tech history I am. Like, all of this is gonna be very new to me, so I’m excited. It’s gonna be fun.
Like, a bit of a game show.
Yeah <laugh>. It’s kinda like a game show, but Cameron knows everything, and he quizzes me.
I wouldn’t say that. Cameron just knows like, kind of random things that sometimes string together.
You’re really good at the “Friday: What did you learn?” question. So that’s something.
Yeah, anytime it’s like, about…I wouldn’t call it drama, but I definitely follow a lot of the tech bubbles that go on <laugh>. The fun stories.
I do live for a little drama. Okay, Cameron, I feel like what we need to do is just go ahead and read this history, so that’s what I’m gonna do. That’s how we’re gonna kick things off. But for our inaugural episode of “This Week in Tech History,” this week in tech history, it wasn’t even the release, it was the… something important happened, and that thing had to do with the TRS-80.
Radio Shack commercial actor 2 (02:15):
(UPLIFTING SYNTHESIZER MUSIC). Radio Shack used space-age technology to create a compact computer for home and business: the TRS-80 Microcomputer System. Record this much paperwork and more, all on inexpensive cassette tapes. Compute budgets, taxes, investments, payrolls, inventory. Ideal for home or business. It’s easy to use, and Radio Shack makes it affordable…
So here we go. Here’s what happened. On February 2nd, 1977, Charles Tandy, the CEO of Tandy Corporation, which owned Radio Shack, I did not know that, was shown the prototype of the TRS-80. Pause here, just for like, a quick reader’s note. I thought we were talking about the calculator.
That’s what I thought, too.
Yeah. What’s the calculator called?
The TI, the Texas Instruments <unintelligible>.
Listeners. We’re not talking about the calculator, we’re talking about something else. The name stands for the “Tandy Radio Shack” and references the 8-bit Z80 microprocessor it housed. The original designer of the computer, okay, so it’s a computer, Steve Leininger of the Homebrew Club, which is a future episode, so we’ll talk about the Homebrew Club later, suggested the company could feasibly sell 50,000 of these teeny tiny little computers. Again, this is in 1977. That means my mom was drinking age. Sorry, Mom, for telling everyone your age <laugh>. I just like to like, conceptualize what was happening. You know, the VP of manufacturing said that was “horseshit” in quotes, direct quote from the VP of manufacturing, because Radio Shack had no history of selling high value items like this $400 to $600 computer, which would be like, yeah, it’s like $1,700 to like $2,600 in today’s dollars.
So he did not believe Steve, who was like, “Yeah, we’re gonna sell tens of thousands of these.” But within a week, the company had 15,000 calls to order a computer, LOL, calling to order things, and another 250,000 people putting down a hundred dollar deposit to secure theirs, and a future release for Model 1. That’s bananas. The TRS-80 continued production with Models 2 and 3, eventually shelving it in 1981, so four years later, with over 2.4 million units sold. So, just like a little bit more than 50,000. Today, there are upwards of 300 million personal computers purchased every year. We probably purchased like, a hundred million of those because our computers are always dying here. They are perhaps the most ubiquitous and enduring symbol of the growth of technology over the last 40 years. And what was once seen as a frivolous and excessive expense has now become one of the most used tools in the world. That’s kind of a big deal actually. This like, first tech history tidbit that we’re getting into like, the TRS-80 is a huge deal.
Yeah. I don’t know if that’s the, what they call the digital frontier or if the internet is the digital frontier, but I kinda equated it more to this, just because things went from being physical to digital.
Well, yeah, I was thinking, before we got on like, the use of a computer was to compute things, right? To compute numbers. So, a personal computer is taking the place of thousands of hours of math done by hand, essentially. Right? Like, there’s no notion of connecting to the internet. There’s no notion of like, graphic design <laugh> or like, creating websites. So, it’s like, mind boggling to me that in four years, over 2 million people were like, “Yeah, I need this thing to do math for me.”
I’m wondering, also, how early people started using it for writing, because like, I’ve never used a typewriter, but that just seems miserable, and I don’t even know how you correct letters. So I think that’s probably also a huge jump. ‘Cause I don’t enjoy math, so not trying to do any math that’s not necessary.
<Laugh>. Word processors is definitely a thing. I do remember like, growing up, I don’t think my mom had high-speed internet, like wifi, until I was out of college. Like, we would..I’d have to like, go dial-up on a desktop, and so I spent a lot of time on just like, a computer that’s not connected to the internet. Right? And I don’t know if that was like, maybe a little bit before your computer interaction, but like getting the…going to Staples and picking out a new computer game, and like, you just run it locally and, you know, write all your essays on your word processor. Okay, so that tracks, then. I can see why 2.4 million people would be like, “Yeah, gimme that box.” <Laugh>.
The gaming, that also (8-BIT VERSION OF “ENTRANCE OF THE GLADIATORS” FADES IN) is possibly like, available. I think the gaming, and probably the writing, more than the math. Just because, being able to keep notes digitally, or even write like, people write books or, you know, do really extensive journaling. I can’t imagine doing that by hand.
<Laugh>. Right? I know my hand, it’s pathetic. I like, write ten Christmas cards, and I have to ice it. (Cameron: <Laugh>.) Do you think these people knew what they were on to? Like, were they like, “This is going to change everything about the way that people work and live?”
I mean, I think that was pretty obvious. Just the fact that you could remove so many things from being physical into a…like, the processing and the speed aside, maybe that was just kind of up for debate, ‘cause it’s like, really unknown, but just making things more automated in that sense where you don’t require the same like, materials and physical energy. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) ‘Cause it’s even kind of the same way now, where like, there’s certain things where a person is controlling a robot, but they’re still kind of actively doing it, but the robot is taking on like, a lot of the force, and the weight, and stuff like that. So, I think it kind of falls into that category where that’s really revolutionary. Even if they’re not thinking so forward, like, oh, well one day the robot just will manage itself, (Faith: Right.) or do everything crazy fast.
<Laugh>, I always wonder like, innovations like this, how can you know like, how can you know that there’s going to be a use for literally everybody on the planet?
Yeah. And I think part of that is also for the guy to not be very interested. I don’t think that you can initially shut down like, a figure without doing market research. I mean nowadays, like, everything has very extensive market research. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) Every single like, startup comes and goes, “Oh, this is a x-billion dollar market with this many, and we’re gonna capture this percentage of the market share, and it trickles down from there.” And I’m sure that’s just, kind of like, our modern version of marketing and concept of research and everything, but (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) I can’t imagine that even back then like, I’m sure it rose more in like, the corporate ‘80s, but even the ’70s, somebody would have the sense to at least like, research numbers just to (Faith: Yeah.) get a feel for it.
I want to, just in like, my own private time <laugh> this evening, when I’m going down rabbit holes, I wanna look at their initial marketing, because I think things that are insanely disruptive. Like, the first personal computer, it’s very difficult to get that messaging right, because what you’re essentially saying is, “I’m going to make everything you do 10x easier,” and I think our instinct as humans is to be like, “But I don’t wanna learn how to do that, and what I’m doing right now is fine.” You know, like that’s the struggle that every marketer runs up against, whether you’re producing like, hardware, software, service (Cameron: Service. Very much so.) It’s like how…yeah. How do you convince people that it’s 10x better? So, I’m very curious to see what Radio Shack had up their sleeve for this big release <laugh>.
Radio Shack commercial voice actor (10:29):
(UPLIFTING SYNTHESIZER MUSIC). Let the Radio Shack TRS-80, with a world of color computing, into your home. Instant loading program packs turn any color TV into an exciting game arcade. (ELECTRONIC GAME SOUND EFFECTS). There’s more. The color computer is an educational aid, a home management tool, and up-to-the-minute electronic information service. The programmable, expandable TRS-80 color computer, from $399 only at Radio Shack: the biggest name in little computers.
Okay. This is a huge gamble. Obviously, Radio Shack produced what, 50,000 of these PCs? Or no, that was…
That was the original estimate that they blew out of the water.
Right. What Steve thought that they could do, and the VP of manufacturing was like, ugh. But still like, you know, it’s a huge deal to launch something like this and to spend so much time, especially since this is a hardware product, right? You’re not building software, you have to get it right the first time. Let’s talk about other stories of huge bets that paid off, or maybe did not pay off.
<Laugh>. I mean, like I said, I follow a lot of the ones that go wrong, sometimes more than the ones that go right, just ‘cause we’re not that aware of ’em. But I think some of the ones that went right, I mean the most obvious ones would be, I can think even in the last decade or two, sometimes Apple makes a jump from like, a product that everyone’s very familiar and comfortable with, and they just like, create its sister product. Like, you know, they created the iPad to fill, well, create like, a tablet market. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) They chopped off the cords for the AirPods. Both of those products kind of jumped off of an existing product and like, were really ridiculed. I don’t know if it was ridiculed legitimately or more just people making jokes of it with the intention to still buy it, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) which is obviously kinda what happened. (Faith: Yeah.) It’s funny to me just kind of the treatment, and that just might be like, our meme culture nowadays, that we poke fun at everything, but I mean the iPad like, it…there’s a very specific need now. If tablets were just gone, there would, kind of, be a void for that size of screen and kind of the functionality like, for artists or I dunno, coffee shops and their tablets. And then, same thing with AirPods. People poked fun about how it’s the same product without the cord, but like, the point is you don’t have the cord so…
Right. It’s like, it’s certainly an improvement, but it’s not an innovation that’s changing your life in some like, massively meaningful way.
That’s only why I would say it’s a gamble, because it’s not so revolutionary. But then, it really, really took off and made them like, billions of dollars. That they made this thing, even though everyone, I mean, kinda like the Steve guy, I’m sure now they would say, “Well there’s all this research and people want, you know, they don’t want the wires hanging. They need this size screen.” Like, there’s a lot of intention behind it, and people’s initial like, scoff is just kind of like, “Well that’s stupid,” (Faith: Yeah <laugh>.) without any real thought behind it. But then they turn out to be right, so I think that’s kind of why I was aligning those things. ‘Cause even though it’s not a big risk, it’s like, the initial reaction is not very supportive, but that’s wrong.
I kind of feel like everything that has been market-shaping and like, habit-changing on a massive scale was a risk, right? Like, if we can think about software, which is kind of easy, like Slack. Slack had lots of false starts with other products that were not related to asynchronous communication. But the notion that we’re gonna create an entirely new way of communicating at work, like, that’s a risk, because people are so embedded in the systems that they’re currently using, which are working fine. Like, no one’s thrilled about email, but nobody’s like, quitting their jobs, because email is so bad, or like, shutting down their companies, because email is so bad. But now–
They also chose a very specific market that being…companies like, social use, where there’s so many other competitors.
But I think that that’s kind of like, a necessary ingredient for like, innovation or like, changing markets and habits is like, yeah it’s gonna be <laugh>, it’s gonna be kind of a huge gamble. And there’s, (Cameron: Mmm-Hmm <affirmative>.) to your point, there’s like, not always a way to like, test the market. Especially in 1970…what are we talking, ‘77? You know, what are you gonna do? Send like, flyers to people in the U.S. Mail <laugh>? Like, how did market testing work?
We don’t have email campaigns where you can track like the opens and the conversions and, and we have advantage now with all of the data tracking and it’s crazy.
Yeah, definitely. Definitely a market improvement. I also am always curious about, you know, obviously we do not have a time machine. I would love to have a time machine, because I just would love to know, at that time when they were producing, what was it, a 3 point…8-bit processor? If we could go back in time and be like, “Hey guys. Actually, like a 3.5 gigahertz is gonna be average in 2023.” I mean, I don’t know how big they were dreaming, but I would have to assume that the folks at Radio Shack were not like, “Oh yeah, this is just one small step towards 3.5 gigahertz.”
Sometimes, we’ll have interviews with clients where they’re working on a very specific piece of tech, and like, they’re kind of in their own little bubble, and they have their use cases for it. But then, I sit back, and I’m thinking, in the background, ‘cause obviously I’m not a participant in the interview, I’m just kind of the host and taking some notes, but thinking about how just them progressing forward on the playing field is inevitably going to bring other people that then tie that technology into their own. Everyone just kind of moves forward, and it’s very interesting. So, I also wonder sometimes, in that sense where we judge them with a lot of like, modern focus and thinking, “Oh, well how do they not consider this or imagine this?” But I mean, they had like a very defined set of obstacles, maybe. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) And so that’s like what they were set on accomplishing or overcoming obstacles <laugh>. (Faith: Yeah.) Whereas now, other people have taken that, and built it into their own foundation, and then taken it even more forward. So I mean, phones off of computers is a huge example, especially like smartphones.
Yeah. I mean, like, let’s talk about all the things that would not be possible without the TRS-80.
I mean, sometimes I even wonder how many appliances we have that have like…digital clocks on your microwave or, (Faith: Right.) you know, the Keurig, where you can program the temperature. There’s so many. I don’t know how digital that is or not, but just when there’s a screen interface you kind of question how much of a computer is inside of the device, or if it is just smaller mechanisms.
Yeah. Well, anything that’s IOT, you know, is inherently like, at least in some small way, computing things. And I mean, obviously like, laptops, phones, desktops maybe like 10 years ago. Or for folks who are still using desktops, <laugh> probably every developer who’s listening, like, all of this naturally comes from the first PC. So, I think you’re totally right. We can’t be like, poo-pooing on Radio Shack’s cute little box computer.
Yeah. It’s a lot of pressure to put on the one person and the one focus.
Right? It’s like why didn’t you come out with the iPhone? <Laugh>.
<Laugh>. Another one of the like, really big gambles that I recently learned about, ‘cause I tend to watch a lot of little video essays on YouTube. Sometimes they’re about business, sometimes they’re just about like, other random pieces of history, or like I said, like, news stories. But I saw one that was about the rise of Starbucks. I’m a huge Starbucks fan.
But one thing that’s like, very notable about them, not only how they kind of revolutionized the space with making like, the coffee shop such an experience, versus more of like a drive-through, where you just kind of went, and got your coffee, and left, which you can still do. But the way that they innovated the experience, but specifically like, you think of now you can mobile order. There’s a lot of app integration, and just like, compared to some of the other competitors, where it’s more clunky to use their app and then, you know, a lot of people buy gift cards and store money, kind of, in their account. And so one really crazy thing that I learned in that video was that Starbucks has more cash, kind of, on hand through people preloading their cards than a lot of banks do.
It’s because, I think like, several billion dollars of that pre-stocked money…’cause once you load it in there, you can’t remove it. It’s in there for you to use.
Yeah. That’s kind of genius.
Yeah, but it’s like, that all started from a coffee shop, because they’ve kind of been at the forefront of the technology with building an app, building in, you know, a gift card function and a reward system. Things that a lot of other huge, huge billion dollar food companies are like, dragging behind them. And some of them like, kind of, catch up in some places, and then other ones just never really do. But it’s really interesting to view them as a tech company, ‘cause a lot of people like, they’ll obviously view them as a coffee establishment, but then like, they’re also an experience, and then they’re also a bank <laugh> in a sense. (Faith: Yeah.) And now, you can also view them as a technology company, which I’m not sure how much of that they invented themselves, but they’ve got one of the best functioning apps and experiences, (Faith: Right.) at least that like, I commonly use. So that was very interesting to think, just because what I would think is, it was a huge gamble. That was part of the video, (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) and the whole discussion was about Howard Schultz really, really believed when no one else wanted him to do it.
Yeah. And you know, they’re a technology company and a financial institution, basically. Like, if you’re holding–
<Laugh>. People would’ve told him, “You’re not going into banking. Sorry, you’re not–”
<Laugh>. Right? Yeah.
“You’re not going into computing for your coffee shop.”
<Laugh>. I mean, speaking of like, being a technology company, and folks aren’t really thinking of you that way. Like, I did not realize that Radio Shack was behind the first PC. Like, in my mind, Radio Shack is, (Cameron: I think–) yeah. The last time I was in a Radio Shack was to buy my no-skip Discman with the gift card I got when I was 13, and I guess, I mean, more recently, right? They’ve been in the news. Was it Radio Shack stock that was a thing? Or was it their social media manager–
When they went bankrupt? This would be one of those like, those drama stories that I would follow <laugh>.
Yes. I’m so glad we’re doing this together.
<Laugh>. They sold their, what like, assets they had left, and so, since it’s such a household name, someone bought the rights to the name. (Faith: Mmm.) And with that, they also transferred like, the social media accounts, ‘cause they have the legal, I guess protection. And so now, then they started selling like, I think it was NFTs or something (Faith: Yeah.) in the crypto space. But it was just funny that it wasn’t the initial Radio Shack, whatever it was, I’m not sure if it was NFTs, but they just like, they really…this person was trying to spin up their whole, new, unrelated business, (Faith: Hmm.) and it was tied to the Star…I was about to say “Starbucks,” <laugh> (Faith: <Laugh>.) it was tied to the Radio Shack thing.
<Laugh>. I love that. I don’t know if poetic justice is the right word, but it just feels like a neat bow on the Radio Shack portion of history, releasing the first PC, all the way into whatever the fuck happened last year, the year before. I’m thrilled for Radio Shack. This has been enlightening. <Laugh>.
I think it’s also kind of as funny as like, celebrity NFTs, where they just sell like, pictures of themselves or whatever. Like, if they’re, you know, a singer, they sell some type of digital song NFT, or whatever it is. It’s like, some of these people are, have had careers of decades and decades, and then now they’re at this point where–
He’s selling NFTs, baby.
Yeah. Whatever generates the money.
Yep, that’s right. And you know, in some small way we probably have the TRS-80 to thank for the fact that NFTs are now a thing that’s in our vocabulary, because we need a PC to view them. So, thank you, Radio Shack. Cameron, I want to go ahead and call the first episode of “This Week in Tech History” a success. I learned so much, thanks to you and your obscure knowledge. So, thank you so much for that, and I’m gonna tell everybody, all my friends that I hang out with this weekend about the history of the first PC until I get removed from parties. So, all in all, net positive from this conversation.
Well hope you have fun with that. <Laugh>. Good luck.
Thanks for listening to The Frontier podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @thefrontierpod, and we’ll see you next week.