Remembering the TRS-80 and the Altair 8800

Aug. 9, 2019
by Mark Ollig

In 1977, Radio Shack, a subsidiary of the Tandy Corporation, announced it would begin selling the TRS-80 personal computer.

T-R-S stands for Tandy Radio Shack.

The 80 at the end of TRS-80 stands for the Z80 microprocessor used in the computer.

The Z80 was made by a company called ZiLOG, which, in 1974, became a corporation based out of California.

The Z80 microprocessor had an original clock speed of 1.78 MHz.

The TRS-80 was a home computer containing the keyboard and display monitor. The computer processing and associated electronic components are inside of the keyboard housing.

In August of 1977, I was in the Brainerd Radio Shack store to purchase a new radio. I recall seeing the TRS-80 on display and thought about buying it. When I learned the TRS-80 cost $600 ($2,536 in 2019 dollars), I decided to hold off on purchasing it.

Looking back 42 years ago, I considered computers as being used by the military, weather forecasters, NASA, and for predicting and processing election results, or tabulating the US Census. I did not see the immediate advantages of owning one.

The magazine, Popular Electronics, features articles on how to build your own electronic devices.

During the 1970s, one of the regularly seen advertisements in the magazine included Heathkits.

Heathkits contained the electronic components and instructions needed to make a variety of useful electronic gadgets. Many electronic hobbyists ordered and worked on Heathkits.

The January 1975 front cover of Popular Electronics featured a photograph of the build-it-yourself “World’s First Minicomputer” called the Altair 8800, designed by H. Edward Roberts of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS).

The Altair 8800 kit containing the components cost $439, while the fully-assembled Altair 8800 computer sold for $621.

“If you can handle a soldering iron and follow simple instructions, you can build a computer,” read the Altair 8800 advertisement.

The Altair 8800 computer’s input/output interface consisted of toggle switches and binary lights.

During its first year, over 5,000 Altair 8800 computers were sold.

Many feel the development of the personal computer among computer hobbyists, was due to the popularity of the Altair 8800.

I once read how Paul Allen showed the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, featuring the Altair 8800 microcomputer on the front cover, to Bill Gates.

Allen and Gates would later sit down and write the code for a BASIC program which executed software programs on the Altair computer.

Four months later, Allen and Gates started a microcomputer software company called Microsoft.

There have been computer hobbyists around since the mid-1960s.

Building a digital minicomputer in 1965 could cost $20,000, which is equivalent to $162,600 in today’s dollars.

The TRS-80 Model I computer came equipped with 4KB (4,000 bytes) of RAM (Random Access Memory) and Level I BASIC ROM (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code – Read-Only Memory).

The TRS-80’s display screen was a 12-inch video monitor. Loading and saving of the software and programming data were accomplished using a Realistic CTR-41 cassette tape recorder. A TRS-80 peripheral printer could be added for a pricey $1,200.

During the ‘70s, we recorded and stored music off the radio onto cassette tapes, and computer hobbyists used cassettes to load and store data and software programs.

Some of the software titles used on the TRS-80 included:

Home Recipe;

Personal Finance;

Math I;

Algebra I;


Payroll; and

Level-I BASIC Course.

Floppy disk drives in personal computers were commonly used a few years later.

In 1980, the TRS-80 floppy drive unit sold for about $425.

The same year, Radio Shack introduced their TRS-80 Model III, a pocket computer, and an interface for using a color display monitor.

During August 1977, the first month the TRS-80 computer was publicly available, Radio Shack sold 10,000 computers at an average price of $600 each.

I was reading on the Radio Shack historical home pages about how their stores were flooded with orders and soon sold out their stock of TRS-80s. They were backordered for months.

Radio Shack sold 55,000 TRS-80 computers during 1977.

The TRS-80 became famous for being one of the first affordable fully-assembled home computers; plus, it was a “computer” – which, in the late ‘70s, gave one bragging rights when mentioned during a conversation.

Was the TRS-80 a portable computer? Well, not really, but you could purchase carrying cases for it from the Radio Shack store.

Radio Shack was founded in 1921 by two brothers, Milton and Theodore Deutschmann from Boston, MA.

The term “radio shack” is a reference to the location for a small cabin housing a naval ship’s radio equipment.

The primary reason the two brothers started this company was to provide electronic radio equipment for police radio officers and amateur ham radio operators. That’s why they called their company, “Radio Shack.”

A full-page color advertisement for the 1977 TRS-80 computer can be seen at https://bit.ly/2KurUBD.

Radio Shack ended production of the TRS-80 in 1981.

To learn more about the Radio Shack TRS-80, visit https://bit.ly/2MExNPn.

More information about the Altair 8800 can be found at https://s.si.edu/2WrTOH9.

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