Remembering the Trash-80

 

"A typical smart phone has more computing power than Apollo 11 when it landed a man on the moon."

— Nancy Gibbs

 

Last week's news about RadioShack going into bankruptcy and preparing to close many of its stores reminded me of my early experience with the electronics retailer.

Yes, I'm talking about the TRS-80, affectionately known to journalists as the Trash-80.

Newspapers everywhere jumped headlong into the Personal Computer age, buying those early PCs and hoping editors and reporters would figure out how to use them.

The earliest version, the Model 1, came out in 1977. It was snapped up by hobbyists and consumers, who jumped at the low PC entry price of $399 ($599 with a 12-inch white on black display monitor and separate data cassette storage).

Authors recalling those early PC years wrote that the TRS-80 was touted as a home computer that would "do a payroll for up to 15 people in a small business, teach children mathematics, store your favorite recipes or keep track of an investment portfolio."

Orders flooded in to Fort Worth's Tandy Corp., which couldn't keep up with demand. A quarter million people were reportedly put on waiting lists.

The Model 1 arrived with just 4KB of built-in RAM memory. Later, the Model 1's memory was expanded to a whopping 16KB. Data was stored on a cassette tape, a system prone to slowness and glitches. All characters were upper case unless you bought a third-party add-on memory chip.

Printing was a problem without Tandy's proprietary interface. And the FCC claimed the Model 1 interfered with surrounding electronic signals. Tandy was forced to discontinue the Model 1 after several years.

My bosses joined the rush to PCs and bought their first batch of TRS-80s when Tandy introduced the Model II, a business machine with detachable keyboard, built-in floppy disk drive and 32KB of RAM that could be upgraded to 64.

That's when our journalistic lives changed. Editors like me who fell in love with the business because of words soon found themselves grappling with other languages — DOS and ASCII, Scripsit and Visicalc.

But it was state-of-the-art. Soon, we were dealing with 40-track, double-density floppy drives and double-sided floppy disks that would accept a dozen news stories. With a third-party word processing program, we were in business.

Our group — six suburban daily newspapers and a weekly scattered across Dallas-Fort Worth — funneled all its work to a central bureau and printing plant. Each day, dispatch drivers arrived from Garland, Richardson, Irving, Arlington, Grand Prairie and the Mid-Cities, lugging large black suitcases jammed with the collective efforts of reporters, editors and advertising sales teams.

In that central plant in Farmers Branch, photos were processed, advertising was built, AP stories were selected and hundreds of stories were pulled from those floppy disks. Each day, we started with a full set of blank canvasses and filled them with the daily comings and goings of our communities.

It was magic. I know that now.

But often, when those Trash 80s balked and spit out error messages warning of data lost, defective disks, aborted commands, checksum errors, failed memory and invalid data … we wanted to push them off our desks.

We cursed our Trash 80s, griped about glitches, then slapped them upside their plastic heads and made them work again. At the end of the day, we hit our deadlines and headed for home, content we had survived another computer crisis.

Looking back, it was a wonder that we ever put out a paper on those early computers. But we never missed a publication.

I never learned DOS, but I'll admit it might have helped when I got caught up in those frustrating arguments, the middle man caught between editors whose balky machines simply refused to work and the Information Technology department, whose standard answer even back then was, "Tell them to reboot." To the PC expert's credit, it worked often enough that you were a fool if you hadn't already tried that a half dozen times before calling.

Today, with powerful PCs, iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, Androids and banks of servers networked together, with memory, power, cloud storage and backups thousands of times greater than what we had in the '80s, we still deal with crashes, glitches and error messages.

It's been years since I saw a terror-inducing "checksum error" or a "fatal exception error" on a blue screen. More often these days we see, "Quark has experienced a problem and will shut down."

Recommended action before calling IT: Reboot.

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Dave Berry is a former editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears each Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.

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