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.
June 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm
I’m going try to describe Radio Shack, as 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 milennium and the bold switch from “Radio Shack” to “RadioShack” has changed everything.
Well, their passion for selling batteries has been eclipsed by a passion for selling cellphone plans, and neither their own in-housee electronics nor, to a large extent, electrical components are really a mainstay part of their business plan any more. Most RadioShacks still do have a modest section where you can get lengths of wire and breadboards and capacitors and the like, but it no longer is what it once was, and discerning customers have flocked to institutions like Fry’s Electronics, which has picked up the slack on the DIY electrical/electronics fronts.
Th main things Radio Shack sells these days are personal electronics: cellphones, GPS navigators, MP3 players, and suchlike. The operation as a whole is largely regarded as having lost its market and instead of being a hobbyist mecca has turned into a smaller, pricier, pushier version of Best Buy or the electronics floor of Walmart.
June 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm
Thanks for this! I emigrated from America a couple of years ago and have only been back once so far since, so my knowledge of Great American Mall Culture is getting slowly outdated. I don’t miss American shopping as much as I miss burritos, chicken wings, and proper hamburgers, but I do miss it.
June 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm
Ooh, the TRS-80 is one system I never got around to read about. And something tells me your version of the story is much more interesting than Wikipedia’s.
June 6, 2011 at 4:04 pm
I actually must admit to some surprise that Radio Shack is still around in 2011.
You’re not the only one:
Jake is right; the “components section” of a RadioShack these days is a tool chest about 2.5’x4’x1′, and mostly contains buttons, jacks/outlets, and a very small handful of capacitors, resistors, diodes, and potentiometers — no ICs, no sensors, no segmented displays, etc. And the staff is not just clueless, they’re condescending. On the bright side, they don’t require your name anymore.
Brent J. Nordquist
June 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm
On the subject of having to give your name and address at Radio Shack: A classic:
October 19, 2011 at 10:56 pm
My friend Scott, a TRS-80 genius who wrote direct machine code in a hex editor without using an assembler for any of his work and who led me into the world of programming (and still owns 2 Model I’s – one of which was my first computer), was fired from Radio Shack when he was a high school senior.
Seems Scott neglected to ask for the required customer address info from a “spy” shopper from corporate who bought – you guessed it, two batteries. Scott was immediately canned following the transaction.
November 27, 2014 at 1:51 am
For those who think this might be exaggerated, I present http://www.sbnation.com/2014/11/26/7281129/radioshack-eulogy-stories. Based on my experiences (as a shopper, never thank goodness worked there), I suspect this is 100% accurate.
November 28, 2014 at 8:11 pm
Good Lord! That’s astonishing. And terrible.
April 6, 2015 at 1:54 am
Before the 1977 Trinity, there was the Sphere 1.
July 17, 2017 at 1:04 pm
R.I.P. Radio Shack. For it was you that allowed Johnny 5 to survive.
November 8, 2017 at 10:27 pm
going try -> going to try ?
November 8, 2017 at 10:28 pm
as least -> at least ?
November 8, 2017 at 10:30 pm
milennium -> millennium ?
November 9, 2017 at 8:34 am
Thanks for these!
July 27, 2018 at 5:44 pm
Although this is an old post that probably doesn’t get read much anymore, I feel the urge to share my Radio Shack story, if only to dispel some of that aura of nostalgia about how they were better, “in the good old days.” One Christmas (probably 1978 or 79) my father gave me a cool radio-controlled car from Radio Shack. After he had installed the ridiculous number of batteries and completed the “some assembly required,” we took it out to the park. It wouldn’t work. It moved maybe an inch or two when the wind was just right. We took it back to the store and their first offer was to exchange it. We tried out a series of progressively un-cool radio controlled vehicles, all stocked for sale at the store. Not ONE of them worked, either for me or for the sales associates. Finally, they gave in and agreed to begin the massive paperwork for a refund, which my father filled out in triplicate, taking what seemed like forever to child-me. We left after two or three hours with a very bad taste in our mouths.
September 16, 2021 at 12:21 pm
Dang, wow this was a kick in the biscuit maker, reading this in 2021. Poor old RS died a long and awful death.
Thanks so much to all the folks who left links to RS stories and jokes. Wow, I had forgotten just what a weird and strange niche of America that RS played.
I will say that the ham radio community ALWAYS loved RS, especially back in the day before computers when amateur radio still had a thin veneer of “cool” to it amongst some youth, believe it or not. I definitely remember a summer camp where the ham radio class was a popular choice. RS was about the only place you could walk in and pick up radio supplies (as opposed to ordering from a catalog).
At least until the early 70s, I’d say you actually were likely to get a knowledgeable employee who could give you advice on transistors, etc, although I think their quality was slipping a bit even then. I sure know that the CB radio craze (late 70s) made them a ton of money, but then by the 80s, they really were becoming “behind the times on everything.”
Lastly, I was chuckling at loud, remembering the mandatory address thing, although, in my memory, they were always more focused on getting my telephone number. I distinctly remember my friends and I shamelessly making up random numbers and address information (1234 Main Street) just so we could buy some damn batteries, and the clerk clearly did not give a *beep* :)
September 17, 2021 at 1:10 am
Hmmm, where is that relative to the breadbasket and the tambourine? ;)
April 10, 2022 at 6:12 pm
Continuing to kick the ol’ biscuit maker …
The mandatory address is a little bit of myth but also a bit of reality. I say that because you didn’t have to give them your address and they would still process a transaction. They did have to ask, though. And for a refund, they could stop the transaction (per company policy) without an address.
When working at Radio Shack, it was known that the name/address gathering had to be at or above 80 percent. That number could vary per store, district or region. But it was some percentage and usually a high one. So of the people that came in, your SLA, for lack of a better term, was 80 percent of them better have been entered into the system. If that wasn’t the case, you got a warning. Enough warnings got you canned. So you had to ask. But nothing said you had to enter their actual address, of course.
A lot of employees would put in false addresses just to meet that quota when the customer wouldn’t give the information. Needless to say, corporate became aware of that practice and it did open up internal debate. Getting 80 percent was meaningless if a lot were “fake addresses.” But … obviously you couldn’t just assume the employee did this because people could, and did, give false address information. (It wasn’t like they were using a GeoAPI to determine the validity of the address.)
At one point corporate, based on this problem, loosened the restrictions somewhat. If purchases were under a certain amount (usually some range between $20 and $50) and the customer refused to give their address, this didn’t count against your quota. But it got a little worse because the idea of “getting the address” was one way that corporate then decided it could determine how “friendly” salespeople were. The theory being, if you were friendly enough, the customer would give you an address. (Apparently, even if it was a fake one.)
Also worth noting: a lot of people felt this “address acquisition” push had to do with the desire to send out fliers. In fact, at the vast majority of Radio Shack’s, you were not put on a list to be sent a flyer unless you shopped at that particular location three times within a given time period (usually 60 to 90 days). This was about cost-savings of wasted fliers but it was also a way to gauge return customers. This was really important because, for a time, way too many Radio Shack’s could be in a given radius. One of the oft-quoted statistics was that there were, quite literally, 25 stores near Sacramento, California, located within a 25-mile radius. There were seven stores within five miles around Brooklawn, New Jersey.
Thus knowing which store customers frequented mattered and the address and/or phone number information was one way to know that. It had significant impacts on how store inventory was allocated. (This “proximity density” as it was called was also one of the contributing factors to why the chain ultimately failed.)
April 11, 2022 at 2:23 pm
We were always told (not by RS employees, but as a kind of “Everyone knows” cultural wisdom, that they asked for your address because they tracked purchases and would sic the FBI on you if you bought certain combinations of parts considered too communist.
The actual truth is so disappointingly banal.
July 19, 2022 at 6:57 pm
Had such a laugh reading about Radio Shack, because on the other side of the ocean, thousands of miles away here in the UK where Radio Shack was just called Tandy (though the products were branded Radio Shack as I recall), it was… *exactly* the same.
If you wanted to spend eye watering prices on batteries, sold singly no less, it was the place to go. And a single transistor would set you back a few pounds.
I have one very positive review to share though. For my Christmas present in the 80s when walkmans were all the rage I wanted a very cool, sleek looking walkman knock off from Boot’s the Chemists. On Christmas day to my horror it chewed up every tape presented to it. It was taken back to the store in the new year and refunded, my parents then marched me to Tandy. For the same price of £20 I got a very different beast in the sales.
It was decidedly uncool unlike the chic bit of Chinese plastic that had been my Christmas present, and it was hungry too, requiring 4AA batteries instead of 2. That was a lot of pocket money. But darn it if it didn’t turn out to be one heck of a machine. It was built like a tank and survived many drops onto concrete. Unlike every one of my friends players it had an actual rewind button. It had a really strong motor that coped easily with tapes that were getting a bit tight. It went way louder than you could ever need and the sound quality was excellent.
To save on batteries I would use the DC jack, but me not knowing any better I just plugged my ZX Spectrum’s power pack into it seeing as it fit. Now a speccy power pack is a big unregulated beast probably chucking over 10V DC into a light load. And my Radio Shack tape player was rated for 6V. Well I guess it had a big old linear regulator in there that just got nice and toasty but hung on because I used it in that configuration for years.
It was an epic machine. What eventually ruined it was an oddity that I suppose was a ‘feature’.
If you used the external DC with the batteries installed it would charge the batteries. I left it plugged in having forgotten to remove some normal non rechargeable batteries to find a kind of pool of melted goo where the batteries used to be.