Buy the Book Read Comments The Authors

Priming the Pump:
How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution

    excerpts from the book


1   The First Complete Microcomputer: TRS-80

Tandy Corporation hired Steve Leininger away from Silicon Valley to work with Don French, a computer hobbyist who worked for them, on a project to build a microcomputer they would sell in their Radio Shack stores. Once the product was introduced in 1977 in New York City, orders began to pour in, with numbers execeeding the most optimistic sales estimates. Tandy had to shift gears to cope with their unexpected success and the enthusiastic user reaction. This chapter relates previous attempts to bring to market a personal computer, the kit computers and the early game machines that preceded the TRS-80, as well as a cultural history of the state of technology in 1977.

read excerpt
2  The DOS Wars

The TRS-80 Model I did not come with an operating system; instead users had the BASIC language. They either had to learn programming or type programs into the computer. The limitations of saving programs to cassette tape were soon apparent and users wanted disk drives. Tandy could not offer disk drives until they had a Disk Operating System (DOS), so they contracted with Randy Cook to create a DOS. Once TRSDOS appeared, users began picking it apart and soon there were five substitute DOS's, including one from Randy Cook who believed Tandy Corp went back on its agreement that he would retain ownership of the code for TRSDOS. Programmers created their own magazine ads, boastfully proclaiming the superiority of their product. Logical Systems, Inc. (LSI) sold Tandy on using their LDOS (renamed TRSDOS 6) as the official Radio Shack DOS. But LSI could succeed only as long as the TRS-80 line continued.

read excerpt
3   Davidís Story

This chapter is in two parts, as David Welsh tells his background as an electronic hobbyist, interested in tube radios and how he learned about the technology that made microcomputers possible. In his own words, we read of his moving from middle-class Grand Rapids to Detroit, attending college and meeting Theresa. In Part Two, he tells us how he came to buy a TRS-80 and how he came to create a word processor in assembler. His first assembler program was writing code to convert the Murray Code used by an ancient teletype machine into ASCII so the machine could be connected to his TRS-80 as a printer. He and Theresa lived in a cheap house in Detroit, making a living as free-lance writers/photographers. They started their software company when David acquired two partners he hardly knew, one of whom gave him $5000 cash in an envelope. They found a distributor and sold their Lazy Writer worldwide.

read excerpt
4  Theresaís Story

Theresa tells us in her own words what it was like operating a small company selling a new product: word processing software. She tells how she created a manual and training materials for Lazy Writer and was chief tester. With only a staff of a few college kids, she dealt with customers who were using their first-ever computer, worked with distributors and dealers, and prepared ads and newsletters for a growing list of customers. She tells us about the 1983 West Coast Computer Faire, seminars she organized, and battles with the partners, who were eventually bought out. The constant need to upgrade software and create add-ons, support new printers and keep up with competitors took a toll. She describes dealing with David's broken leg in the harsh winter of 1982, spending 10 days in the hospital with a life-threatening illness, and a wonderful surprise, the birth of daughter Amy after 17 years of childless marriage. As the TRS-80 declined, Theresa joined the corporate world and found completely different practices and attitudes from how she had operated during her Lazy Writer days.

read excerpt
5  Computer Commerce: Games, Business, Robots, and Scams

Small companies appeared all over America, as programmers went into business selling what they created. Games were wildly popular, and there were star programmers like Leo Christopherson, who programmed the lovable Dancing Demon, and Scott Adams, whose labyrinthine adventure games were addictive. Business programs were big hits, with word processing the most-wanted kind of software. But to get great-looking output, the software had to talk to a printer that made "letter quality" characters. Daisy wheel printers cost thousands of dollars and were limited to the font on a plastic wheel that snapped onto the printer head. Programming for the many printer types was an overwhelming task. This chapter covers the early history of popular business software -- spreadsheets, accounting, mail list, database and "telecomputing" using modems and phone lines, which were mostly comical sessions of are you receiving this? But early Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and dial-up services paved the way for the internet. The 1980s saw the rise of robots; we were all supposed to have a mechanical man in our homes "by the year 2000." But the most incredible story is the tale of a scammer called "Colonel Winthrop" (and various other names) who ran full page ads featuring bogus products for TRS-80s. He had run the same scam before, and was on the lam with unsuspecting female employees when he was finally nabbed by police.

read excerpt
6  Selling it in the Magazines

Magazines were incredibly important to the business of selling software and hardware for microcomputers. The TRS-80 had a number of magazines dedicated to it alone, and their pages held the ads and reviews that informed the growing ranks of computer owners about the new products. The most influential TRS-80 magazine was Wayne Green's 80 Micro. Green began his magazine after successfully starting and managing Byte, which he lost in a dispute with an ex-wife. He went on to found a publishing empire which he later sold for millions of dollars. Although 80 Micro was the most popular with TRS-80 users, the magazine was never sold in Radio Shack stores, and Wayne Green developed an early animosity toward Tandy Corp. He wrote numerous hostile editorials and populated his magazine with user-written articles and employed several colorful characters as columnists. This chapter gives a summary of influential publications from this era, including a history of Creative Computing, published by David Ahl, who also wrote popular books full of BASIC programs. You'll read about the "mysteries" books published by a mysterious guy, Harv Pennington, who profited from users' desire to know more about their system than Tandy would tell them.

read excerpt

7  TRS-80 and the IBM PC

The introduction of the IBM PC did not appear to be an imminent threat to the TRS-80, which was by then a mature system with loads of great software. But in the business world, the IBM name was magic, and computer hardware companies began selling machines compatible with the IBM running MS-DOS. Tandy released a new computer that was partially compatible and wore the "Tandy" nameplate, no longer a TRS-80. The small software companies that sold TRS-80 products could not easily port their software to new systems, and well-financed large organizations were now ready to move into the market. There were few options for companies that had software like Lazy Writer. IBM and Microsoft won the day. But so many people had been introduced to computers by the humble TRS-80 that it is remembered with fondness by its former owners. This chapter provides the comments of many of those people, who relate their stories of meeting a personal computer for the very first time and what it meant to them.

read excerpt

Available in these editions:

 Paperback $22.95.     Kindle $9.95.     Nook (epub) $9.95.

Back to Priming the Pump home page.