Daily Archives: June 6, 2011

The Trash-80, Part 1

The conventional wisdom, as found in fictionalized accounts like Pirates of Silicon Valley and as regurgitated by lazy journalists everywhere, is that the personal computer was invented in a garage in Palo Alto by the charming rogue Steve Jobs and his sidekick Steve Wozniak, who was admittedly a bit weird and nerdy but acceptable in the role of second fiddle. Given his role and personality, it’s not really surprising that Jobs hasn’t done anything to divest the world of this founding myth. Somehow more disappointing, though, is the similar failure of Wozniak, who always struck me as the member of the pair I’d most like to have a beer with. Yet Woz, alas, went so far as to make part of the subtitle of his autobiography “How I Invented the Personal Computer,” when the hard facts are that the legendary Apple II was neither the first fully assembled PC available for purchase (that was the Commodore PET), nor the most successful of the formative era (that was the Tandy / Radio Shack TRS-80, the subject of my entry today). Granted, the Apple could make a pretty good claim for being the best of this dynamic trio of 1977, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

(Update: In the course of researching later posts I’ve come upon some new facts that rather muddy these waters. It is true that Commodore announced the first turnkey PC in the form of the PET at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1977, and brought with them a rough prototype that, at least by the last day of the show, basically worked. However, Commodore did not finally start shipping finished PETs to customers until September of 1977, by which time the Apple II had been shipping for almost three months. So, Apple was the first to market with a turnkey PC, if not the first to begin development on one. (What was Commodore doing for so long? Well, if you have to ask you don’t know Commodore…) But I still think that Apple’s role in the first ten years of the PC era is, while very important, exaggerated by the “winners write the history” syndrome.)

The reasons for the conventional wisdom about the history of the PC aren’t hard to divine. It may be a cliché to say that history is written by the victors, but that makes it no less true — and with Commodore defunct for 17 years at this writing and Radio Shack, or “RadioShack” as they now prefer to be called, having given up on manufacturing computers almost as long ago, the winners in this case are obvious. Further, the story of Apple Computer, of these two plucky all-American visionaries inventing the future in their garage, is the sort that the mainstream media loves to write. How can Commodore, an ex-calculator and office furniture manufacturer led by an abrasive and petty middle-aged man, compete with the two Steves? How can the conservative, stodgy, very establishment Tandy Corporation, parent of the Radio Shack chain of electronics stores?

For those who are not American or who missed this corner of American retail culture, I’m going to try to describe Radio Shack, at least as they were up to a decade or so ago. That’s about how long it’s been since I had much real contact with any of their stores; it’s possible that the new millennium and the bold switch from “Radio Shack” to “RadioShack” has changed everything. But somehow I doubt it; Radio Shack strikes me as one of those seemingly eternal institutions like Montgomery Ward that can only be itself, until one day, poof, it’s suddenly gone altogether. I actually must admit to some surprise that Radio Shack is still around in 2011. It feels like something from another time, a musty piece of shopworn Americana that inexplicably still lives and breathes — and much as I’m about to make fun of them, that makes me feel kind of warm and happy inside.

There were two distinct kinds of Radio Shack customers.

The first was your uncle Jerry, who worked down at the lime mine, drank a twelve-pack of Bud every weekend, and tooled around in a Ford Granada. Jerry shopped at Radio Shack for the same reason that he bought the Granada: some vague sense of patriotic obligation. And like with the Granada, the stereos and televisions he bought at Radio Shack basically got the job done, even if knobs tended to fall off, inexplicable discolored patches tended to appear, and unexplained buzzes occasionally issued forth then disappeared again. Operating them always felt a little bit more awkward than it ought to, and as for the aesthetics of the things… well, let’s just say aesthetics weren’t a priority at the Shack and leave it at that.

And then there was your brother-in-law Don, the real-estate agent and frustrated inventor. Don had subscriptions to Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics among others, and read every issue cover to cover. His garage no longer had room for the family cars, filled as it was with HAM-radio equipment, every television discarded in the neighborhood for the last ten years (he was sure they’d come in handy for something at some point), and that homemade soda fountain that hadn’t yet produced a swallow of drinkable soda but had exploded alarmingly on several occasions. When Don came to Radio Shack, he strode right past the Uncle Jerrys and the displays of “Realistic”-brand consumer electronics to the back of the store, where hung transistors, diodes, capacitors, and God knows what else — an area that was incomprehensible to anyone else, including the poor befuddled employees hanging about the place. These were all allegedly paid on commission, but seemed strangely unaware of that fact, and mostly confined themselves to trying to push batteries on everyone who walked through the door for reasons that were known only to Radio Shack management.

Occasionally a specimen from outside the normal Radio Shack milieu would wander in; there were lots and lots of Radio Shack stores, literally thousands spread all over the country, so they were occasionally selected by default, even if only for the purpose of buying batteries, in places where the alternatives were, shall we say, limited. Given the sales staff’s passion for batteries, one would think these people would be greeted with open arms, but this was not the case. Radio Shack in fact had in place a policy almost guaranteed to drive them from the store in abject frustration, one that would soon have them driving right past the convenient local Shack to get their batteries somewhere, anywhere, else.

When you made it to the sales counter with your $3.00 package of batteries, the heretofore apathetic salesperson would spring to life, asking in an excited tone whether you were on the mailing list. “No thank you,” you might answer, “I’d just like to buy the batteries, please,” optimistically attempting to hand over your $5.00 bill. What you failed to understand was that the salesperson had no more interest in your money at this point than he did in the racks of capacitors at the back of the store; what he wanted was to get you and your address “into the system” by whatever means necessary. Only after accomplishing that, a laborious process likely entailing a false start or two and lots of fiddling with a balky terminal, was he interested in taking your money and earning his freebie commission on this pack of batteries you had walked in and picked up off the shelf for yourself. This process was not optional; you could provide a name and address along with your cash or you could take your goddamn business elsewhere.

Given the priority Radio Shack placed on acquiring this information, one would think that they would treat it as a precious resource. Oddly, though, this didn’t seem to be the case. Even well into the 1990s, long after every other retail chain had networked its computer systems together, Radio Shack, the “technology store,” seemed to have no shared customer database whatsoever. Therefore every time you dropped into a different location of the 237 in your city to get some more batteries, you would have to go through this process again. Even more bizarrely, even a single store had only about a 50-50 chance of retaining your information from one visit to the next. Truly, Radio Shack refined customer aggravation to an art. Only Jerry was willing to put up with it, because it was his duty to “buy American,” and Don, because you just couldn’t get this shit anywhere else.

When we take all of these factors into consideration it becomes clear why Radio Shack had an image problem in 1977. That’s not an unusual state of affairs for the company; having an image problem is a part of what Radio Shack is, as fundamental to it as those mazes were to Adventure. Radio Shack has always been, and will always remain, the anti-Apple Store, the antithesis of hipster cool. When they decided to release their own computer that year, the awkward but lovable contraption that resulted left no doubt about its parentage.