Skip to content

TRS-80: Everything You Need to Know About This Pioneering Computer

The TRS-80 was one of the firstpersonal computers available for purchase by small businesses and average consumers. Let‘s explore the history and legacy of this iconic system from the late 1970s that helped jump start the PC revolution.

The Origins of the TRS-80

The TRS-80 has its roots in 1975 when Don French, a buyer for RadioShack, purchased an MITS Altair computer kit. This early PC used toggle switches for input but opened French‘s eyes to the possibilities of computers small enough for the home.

In 1976 French recruited Steve Leininger, a 24 year old engineer at National Semiconductor, to help design a microcomputer to be sold by RadioShack. Leininger was an active member of the Homebrew Computer Club alongside soon-to-be-famous hobbyists like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Together in December 1976, French and Leininger gained official approval for their secret project: to create an affordable computer for the masses. They worked out of Tandy headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, building the prototype throughout 1977.

This prototype ran a simple tax prep program, and famously crashed during a demo for RadioShack‘s owner Charles Tandy. But despite this hiccup, Tandy recognized the potential and approved the machine for production. The TRS-80 was born, named after the company‘s full name: Tandy RadioShack Z-80.

Groundbreaking Price and Performance

When the TRS-80 Model I debuted in August 1977, it revolutionized the home computer market with its consumer-friendly price: just $399 for the base system, monitor included! Compare this to machines costing well over $1000 like the Apple II and Commodore PET.

For the money, the specs were highly competitive:

  • Zilog Z80 CPU running at 1.77 MHz
  • 4 KB standard RAM (48 KB max)
  • Cassette tape and video ports
  • 64×16 pixel monochrome display
  • Microsoft BASIC built into ROM

And for $599 you also got a 12" monitor and cassette recorder. The Model I could load and run programs right out of the box, no assembly required. This opened computing to the masses.

RadioShack initially estimated yearly sales of 3000 units. But once units hit stores in September 1977, the response was overwhelming.

Over 15,000 orders poured in within the first month, quickly selling out the initial run. Tandy scrambled to ramp up production over the next years, ultimately selling over 200,000 Model Is. The TRS-80 was a monumental hit!

A Thriving Software Library

A major ingredient in the TRS-80‘s success was its expansive library of software, the largest of any computer by 1979. This was key for attracting home users and small businesses alike.

Titles available included:

  • Productivity programs like VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet
  • Databases for tracking inventory, customers, etc.
  • Programming languages like Microsoft‘s BASIC and FORTRAN
  • Text adventures like the seminal Zork series
  • Arcade classics ported over like Space Invaders and Asteroids
  • Role playing games that shaped the genre like Wizardry

And thanks to RadioShack‘s retail footprint, distribution for these programs reached far and wide. Third party developers big and small scrambled to fill demand, knowing their software could sell thousands of copies.

Evolution of the TRS-80 Line

The Model I set the stage, but Tandy iterated on the TRS-80 line throughout the early 80‘s with newer models:

TRS-80 Model III – Released in 1980, featured lower case text, better keyboard, faster CPU, and modular design.

TRS-80 Model 4 – The 1983 follow up sported 64 KB RAM, 80×24 display, integrated floppy drives, and TRSDOS 6.0 OS.

Each iteration expanded functionality and boosted performance to widen the machine‘s commercial applications. But models maintained backwards compatibility to leverage the abundant Model I software library.

Lasting Impact on the PC Industry

The TRS-80 series went on to sell over 2 million units total by the mid 1980s. For several years it was the best selling microcomputer line in the world.

Along with Apple and Commodore systems, the TRS-80 formed the "1977 Trinity" of PCs that brought computing out of labs and into homes. Its accessible price point helped democratize technology and usher in the PC revolution.

Many design ideas that started in the TRS-80, like expandable architecture and all-in-one casing, influenced both home computers and business PCs that followed. The IBM PC released just a few years later in 1981 borrowed heavily from the Tandy computer.

So the next time you turn on your modern PC or laptop, think back to pioneering machines like the TRS-80 that helped pave the way! Vintage computer collectors still celebrate these systems that made computing personal.