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The Trash-80, Part 3

14 Jun

As computers began to enter homes in reasonable numbers in 1977 and 1978, bemused (or not so bemused) spouses, parents, children, siblings, and roommates all asked the same question: but what can you actually do with it? Proud new owners didn’t find that a very easy question to answer, for these machines were absurdly limited; the TRS-80 had no color capabilities, only the barest of graphical capabilities, no sound, no lower case letters, for God’s sake. (Radio Shack, in what should be becoming a familiar theme by now, refused to splurge for the $2.00 or so they would have cost to include.) It was not even possible to connect a printer to the TRS-80 prior to the arrival of Radio Shack’s expensive “expansion interface” in mid-1978. Even the staple justification of a few years later for buying a computer — “We can use it for word processing, and the kids can do their school reports on it” — wouldn’t quite fly with 1977-era machines.

The TRS-80 shipped with two programs on an accompanying cassette, computerized versions of backgammon and blackjack. Radio Shack also had four “productivity applications” already available at launch. There were, for starters, some educational software to help the kids out in math and a personal finance system (Quicken in 4 K!). There was also a payroll program, presumably the same one that French and Leininger had demonstrated to Charles Tandy, head of the company, to sell him on the potential of the TRS-80; the program crashed when Tandy enter an annual salary (his own) too large for it to handle.

TRS-80 in the kitchen

And there was a “kitchen” utility bundle, which could convert measurements and store messages for other family members. This last demonstrates how confused even Radio Shack was about what their computer would actually get used for. They seemed quite high on the idea of a TRS-80 in the kitchen, often including pictures of exactly that in their promotional literature, yet one has to wonder just what advantage a balky computer with cassette-based storage offers over a calculator and a good old pencil and pad. Solutions like this, far more convoluted and time consuming than the traditional methods they wanted to replace, were everywhere in the early software market. Hard as Radio Shack and owners might have tried to justify the TRS-80 as a “serious” tool, it’s probably safe to say that virtually all who purchased them wanted first and foremost just to play with them. No wonder they shipped with two games as their standard software starter package.

Still, Radio Shack showed considerable foresight in realizing that their machine needed supporting software. They actively encouraged early adapters to provide it, making it known that they would sell the best efforts in their stores, a plan that worked rather brilliantly and doubtless contributed to the TRS-80′s having a much larger software library than its competitors from Apple and Commodore by 1979. While that pipeline was ramping up, though, users had to find other ways of making their TRS-80s do something. One possibility, of course, was to write their own programs. To support this approach, the TRS-80 shipped with a thorough and friendly BASIC tutorial written by David Lien that is still regarded as something of a classic of its genre today. Yet many craved complete, working programs that they could enter and run, if only to learn from them and to use them as a base from which to start off on their own BASIC explorations.

Luckily, they quickly found a substantial library of code from which to draw. By 1977 BASIC had been in active use on larger institutional computers for well more than a decade, resulting in a large library of programs just waiting to be keyed into all those new TRS-80s. In the very early months there were sharp limitations imposed by available memory and by a primitive implementation of BASIC, but with the arrival of 16 K machines and Level 2 BASIC it became possible to port most of the extant BASIC library to the TRS-80 with relatively little effort, as well as to move programs among the three otherwise incompatible home-computer models of the era. Thus BASIC became a lingua franca, a bridge among all of these very different machines (or, if you like, the Java of the late 1970s). Huge swathes of the BASIC code that users of machines like the HP-2100 series had been trading and tinkering with for years now made their way into bedrooms and living rooms. Suddenly the back catalog of programs previously published in places like Creative Computing had new significance. Showing perfect timing, the magazine had published two “best of” collections as books in 1976 and 1977, full of programs to enter and programming problems to solve; both books now began to sell very well indeed to a new audience of microcomputer owners. In 1978 Creative Computing published BASIC Computer Games, a revision of a book its founder David Ahl had first published in 1973. It included 101 games taken from the magazine’s first five years and before, born of places like the People’s Computer Company, and it became a huge hit, a touchstone for a whole generation of budding gamers and programmers.

Of the programs I discussed previously in this blog, Hunt the Wumpus along with its predecessor games made it onto the TRS-80 in fairly short order. The Oregon Trail initially did not, perhaps due to MECC beginning to realize it had a valuable property under its hands and beginning to claim copyright protections, but in its October, 1979, issue SoftSide magazine published something called Westward 1847, allegedly by one John C. Sherman. A quick look at the code reveals Westward to be our old friend The Oregon Trail with modifications to let it run on the TRS-80. As for Adventure… well, that was a much more complex program and also not written in BASIC, making it a tougher nut to crack. I’ll come back to that soon.

Also among the programs that now began appearing on these new microcomputers was a curious simulation of a psychotherapy session. More on that hugely important program and its legacy next time.

 
 

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5 Responses to The Trash-80, Part 3

  1. Felix Pleșoianu

    June 14, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    The Java of the 1970es, I love it! The parallel is so evocative. And BASIC didn’t even need a virtual machine; just a standard, and even that wasn’t followed very closely. Yet somehow it worked. If only the language was more readable…

    As for the clueless marketing campaigns, that was a sign of decision makers not eating their own dog food. At least back then they had an excuse: microcomputers were still a new and nerdy thing. Nowadays, software vendors still make it painfully obvious that they don’t use their own products, and by now it’s much more difficult to forgive.

     
  2. Robb Sherwin

    June 14, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Loving this series, Jimmy. Say, regarding the lack of lower case letters — it occurs to me that I have no idea how that is possible. Like, the engineer asks management for that feature and the response back is just “NO” in caps.

    The TI-99/4A also didn’t have caps, if I remember right. What kind of part was there, back in the day, that expanded … whatever it is you need to expand to allow caps? Was it another ROM or something they didn’t spring for? It’s such a basic part of computers that I don’t even know what component back then would handle character ranges.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 15, 2011 at 5:35 am

      Thanks!

      The glyphs for lower case letters were present in the character ROM, but the circuitry to select them was missing. As I understand it, the line to one of the character-selection bits (bit 6 to be specific) was left completely unconnected to save money, thus reducing possible characters from 256 to 128, of which 64 were used for the character-graphic glyphs that were the only way to make “graphics” on the TRS-80. The remaining 64 obviously weren’t enough for upper case and lower case and all the possible numbers and punctuation marks, so something had to give.

      There’s a lot more information on the limitation here. As that article demonstrates, there were quite a few solutions to the problem. Radio Shack came out with its own lower-case kit for about $60 (why include lower case from the start when you can charge your customers for it later?), but various other companies also offered solutions that were often cheaper and better. One problem most of these solutions had, however, was that they didn’t account for descenders — i.e., that little tail on “g” and “y” that should dangle below the baseline. The results looked decidedly odd.

      In fairness, a lack of lower case wasn’t that unusual in this era. In addition to the TI 99/4A, the original Apple II also could display only upper case. Like Radio Shack, Apple eventually went back and charged its early adopters for the privilege.

       
      • Eric Fischer

        March 28, 2012 at 11:42 pm

        I wish I could find that article I once read on how to add lower case to your TRS-80, that identified exactly what character generator ROM it was that Radio Shack used, with the messed up lower case.

        But it doesn’t surprise me too much that they skimped wherever they could, even though it seemed shortsighted before long. Apparently they were trying, unrealistically, to hit a $200 retail price point, and it must have been very tempting to save a dollar by leaving out that 1K RAM chip. I think it’s more surprising that the block graphics didn’t get cut too to save another dollar.

         
  3. Harry Kaplan

    June 18, 2011 at 12:32 am

    A good friend of mine, who ultimately became a teacher of Computer Science, got his initial exposure to computers working at a Radio Shack in Philadelphia in the 70′s for several years. I emailed him all three of your Trash-80 blog entries and told him I’d post any comments he had. His feedback is below, and it’s reliable as it comes from the horse’s mouth – well, a certain kind of horse, anyway.
    —————————————————————

    When I bought my early TRS-80 in 1977, I’m pretty sure it came with a cassette program included: “Random Tic Tac Toe”. It was a pretty cool game. The X’s and O’s would rotate position after each move (I can’t recall the exact rule) so it made the game very challenging and somewhat difficult as you had to “think ahead” a bit like a chess game. Also, although the game was written in BASIC source, loaded from tape, the code was quite compact and, by means of BASIC pokes and peeks and varptr() commands, I believe it actually overwrote its own code in memory as play progressed.

    I *think* I can recall blackjack and maybe backgammon on reverse side as a second cassette,,,

    ——-
    Missing in the article is mention that Radio Shack also established “Computer Centers” and published a textbook/workbook on how to program in BASIC. There was a Computer Center in Philadelphia that specialized in computers, software and supplies only – no batteries! There was a classroom at the rear of the store. The store initially serviced Philadelphia, New Jersey and I guess Delaware, and also offered on display a $6000 lineprinter (high speed band of letters to simulate a typed letter) and I believe an IBM minicomputer which was never sold and which I never saw actually running :=).

    ——

    As a fairly young man working in a Radio Shack computer center, their “SOM” was impressive to me. The “SOM” was the “Store Operating Manual” that everyone but me (I was an “Educator”!) had to study carefully. It was a big looseleaf binder with maybe 500 pages that detailed every aspect of starting and running a Radio Shack. I imagine it was created as part of the franchising operation. (I think around 20% of Radio Shack stores at one point were franchises… gradually bought out by the parent company.) In any event, that SOM had a lot of very detailed and carefully thought out policies and procedures.

     

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