Tandy TRS-80: The Budget Computer

Even back then, there were computers for people who couldn't afford the more expensive stuff. Take this Tandy, which costs little more than a upgraded Netbook today. From Core Memory, photographed by Mark Richards and written by John Alderman.

TRS-80 Model 1 (and Model 100)
Year created: 1977
Creator: Tandy Corporation
Cost: $399 ($599 with monitor)
Memory: 4KB ROM
Processor: Z-80

Despite Apple's marketing message of personal empowerment and freedom, they weren't giving away those Apple IIs. A computer—especially one with a price tag of $1,300 or more—was beyond the comfort range of most people in the country, and few parents considered such a thing necessary to child development. As far as business went, it would be a while before a "killer app"—a must-have application—would be developed for machines available at an affordable price.

The TRS-80 was in part an antidote to this. If parents were convinced of a computer's necessity, but their pocketbooks couldn't support an Apple, then $399, or even $99, was worth considering. For a business that wanted to experiment with computing, that was a reasonable asking price.

The system was developed by the Tandy buyer Don French and Homebrew Computer Club leader Steve Leininger, who was quoted by Creative Computing magazine at the time as saying he had rejected a company plan to sell a computer kit because "too many people can't solder." This was an interesting admission from the company that owned Radio Shack, famous at that time for selling electronics parts to hobbyists. Nevertheless, the TRS-80 was actually rather sophisticated. Four kilobytes of RAM were matched with 4K of ROM holding Radio Shack's proprietary version of BASIC. The silver-and-black color scheme—even more than a beige box—evoked a kind of futuristic proletarian chic. Like other, similar systems, the TRS-80 used a cassette tape player as a storage device.

The early portable TRS-80 Model 100, designed by Kyocera and released in 1983, was evidence that, by that time, beige was winning the color war. Rugged and able to start up immediately, the Model 100 as utilitarian and much-beloved by traveling reporters.

Tandy TRS-80: The Budget Computer

Core Memory is a photographic exploration of the Computer History Museum's collection, highlighting some of the most interesting pieces in the history of computers. These excerpts were used with permission of the publisher. Special thanks to Fiona!

The above photographs were taken by Mark Richards, whose work has appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Fortune, Smithsonian, Life and BusinessWeek. The eye-candy is accompanied by descriptions of each artifact to cover the characteristics and background of each object, written by John Alderman who has covered the culture of high-tech lifestyle since 1993, notably for Mondo 2000, HotWired and Wired News. A foreword is provided by the Computer History Museum's Senior Curator Dag Spicer.

Or go see the real things at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.