Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

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

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, January 17, 2012

David remembers being fascinated with NASA’s use of computers, and writing them to ask the size of the picture files sent back to earth by Voyager. In the mail came an answering letter stating that each picture file was two megabytes, an impossible huge size in those days that took hours to “download” from space. It was difficult to foresee that one day we could take a two megabyte digital picture of our cat and email it to someone across the continent and think nothing of it.

David and Theresa Welsh wrote some of the first great software for the TRS-80, and knew a lot of the other people who were also writing great software. In Priming the Pump, they talk about the history of personal computers and the first non-kit mass-market personal computer, the TRS-80 Model I.

RecommendationPurchase Now!
Length348 pages
Book Rating9

This is not a book about a bunch of cool events tied together to form a history—though it certainly has its cool anecdotes. Priming the Pump is about the gestalt of its time, a time when programmers were designers, and writers and artists moved into programming as equals. When people selling software out of their trunk weren’t selling knock-offs, they were selling their own original programming. And a time when the powers-that-be didn’t recognize what was happening.

The New York Times, like most other general news vehicles of the day, did not see anything newsworthy about the entry of a completely off-the-shelf affordable microcomputer.

It’s difficult to hold it against the Times, however. When Don French, one of the two Tandy employees behind the TRS-80, suggested they produce an initial run of 50,000, “I was almost laughed out of the room”. Management suggested 1,000 units, which they eventually increased to 3,500 but only because that was the only way to get a good deal on parts. They justified the increase by saying that each of Radio Shack’s 3,500 stores could have one, and even if they didn’t sell, perhaps the stores could find a use for them.

Radio Shack upper management didn’t seem to have any idea how revolutionary their computer at their price was. Stan Veit, who had a New York computer store at that time–when computers were mostly still things that you built, or programmed by switch, or both, was shown the TRS-80 before its introduction, and echoed French’s recommendation:

Charles Tandy asked Veit how much he thought the computer should sell for. Veit says “I really had no basis for comparison except possibly for the SOL1 and it sold for $1400 with a video monitor. Well, this machine is a lot simpler, so I figure about $1000. But this is Radio Shack, so it must be cheaper. I’ll say $900.” When Veit was told the price would be $600, he reports telling Charles Tandy “you better build a hell of a lot of them.”

Even after the computer was displayed to the public, at a Boston computer show, customers recognized the potential of the new computer before Radio Shack did.

Dick’s2 initial reaction to seeing the TRS-80 sitting on a table at the computer show was: “I couldn’t believe it!” He says it was half the price of anything else, it was already put together, and it was offered by a respectable large company… Both Millers thought it looked like a great buy, but wondered if there was a catch. Dick came back the next day with a friend who knew about computers and both of them ended up ordering a TRS-80.

Don French left the Boston show for a trip to Japan and when he got back he found the Tandy switchboard paralyzed with phone calls. More than 15,000 calls had come in from people who wanted to buy a TRS-80. The company had produced only enough to have a few to show, not expecting to sell very many, and these were all hand-made by seven employees. Despite the deluge of orders, the bosses still didn’t believe the revolution was happening, and they dragged their feet gearing up to meet production.

Lazy Writer full page ad (thumbnail)

In its heyday, AlphaBit Communications bought full-page ads in 80 Micro. This is from February 1983.

That deluge was before the TRS-80 was even in stores. The deluge meant that the original plan of one computer per store was tossed out: the computers were sold before they even reached a store. By the TRS-80’s one-year anniversary, Radio Shack had taken orders for 250,000. But since they hadn’t listened to either French or Veit, most of the orders were unfilled.

The book devotes an entire chapter to the “DOS wars”. Radio Shack’s Disk Operating System, TRSDOS, was pretty basic, limited mainly to formatting their disks in their drives. Radio Shack, not in the business generally of making their own stuff, had no concept of alpha and beta versions of software, so when the programmer they hired sent them an alpha version, they packaged it and shipped it out, much to his chagrin.

This meant that there was a market for less buggy DOSes, and a market for more feature-filled DOSes that could read a wider variety of formats and drive types. I remember 80-Micro being filled with ads for various DOSes. That and Scott Adams Adventures were also the most pirated of software. People didn’t want just one DOS, they wanted all of them.

The DOS chapter ends with the ascendance of MSDOS. Radio Shack never understood that for personal computers it was the software that mattered. They were in the business of buying hardware and then reselling it. Their attempt at competing with IBM was telling: rather than make an IBM clone like everyone else, or capitalizing on the vast software available for the TRS-80 line and improving that, they decided that the reason for the IBM PC’s success was the 8086 processor. So they came out with a not-really-compatible computer based on the more powerful 80186 chip. But their more powerful hardware didn’t trump the better software everyone else had access to.

The TRS-80 Model 100 was introduced the same year as the Tandy 2000, but it could do stuff. It was a hard to kill modem-equipped portable that reporters continued to use for almost twenty years. It allowed them to “type a story, then send it by modem, all from a small box that easily fits in a briefcase and runs on AA batteries… it was way ahead of its time.”3

David Welsh, one of the authors, grew up in my area: he moved to Grand Rapids Michigan when he was four, and still lives in Ferndale. Later he moved to a small town very much like the town I grew up in, population 700 with a consolidated school for kids from even smaller towns. He started on small electronics projects; unlike me he continued on them, since he’s about twenty years older than me. That doesn’t make much difference as far as life in Michigan but it’s a huge difference computer-wise. The moment I discovered programming, hobby electronics projects took a back seat.4

The small chapter on his path through advancing technology–from tubes to transistors to integrated circuits to computers–is a fascinating one. Like many of the previous generation of nerds who I learned from in the Boy Scouts, his self-learning included photography and flying, down to always having their own darkroom and occasionally owning their own small plane.

MultiDOS (thumbnail)

DOSes could afford two-page spreads. “Multidos was both powerful and easy to use. Its visual file utility… let you mark the files you wanted to copy or move… which freed the user from… possibly mistyping a character. This was the first File Manager in which the user selected files instead of typing commands.”

The birth of the TRS-80 section is fascinating. The tale of a young geek growing up pre-computer is also fascinating. But where it really gets interesting is when he talks about trying to make money with his new computer. No one really knew what they were going to do with these things. If you asked, the guesses mostly had to do with numbers or, if the person you were talking to was really ambitious, lists. Companies used to advertise their computers in kitchens, because the most they could think of to really use them for other than programming was keeping recipes.

While Welsh was writing “numbers and lists” programs, he also started writing a utility to make it easier to write documentation for his programs. And then he realized that not only was writing going to be a hot new class of software, but that few people had realized it yet. He had time to be among the first-to-market. He wrote Lazy Writer, and he and his wife marketed it through the computer magazines of the time, mainly Wayne Green’s 80 Micro.

Piracy was a big concern even then. The Welshes received lots of requests for support from areas where they hadn’t sold any software. I remember when I went to college, everyone I knew who had a TRS-80 had a pirate copy not of the mom and pop software like Lazy Writer, but of Radio Shack’s Scripsit. The problem was a chicken-and-egg one. An organization like theirs couldn’t afford to lower the price, but people also had a hard time justifying $175 for each piece of software they needed.5 It’s unlikely many of them would have bought it even without piracy.6

Theresa Welsh has her own chapter, and if her manuals were as well written as this condensed tale of the world of personal programming and life, it isn’t surprising that their customers were begging them to write for the IBM-PC.

Both of the Welshes are writers, and they recognized that word processing was a great advancement for writers. Theresa Welsh wrote the manual for the software—and wrote it on the software, so that she was able to give feedback before it went to market. In an age of cryptic documentation—where, coming from electronics documentation, the instructions often meant the actual code or how the program worked, not how to use it—there were a few highlights in the world of manuals. One was the very first BASIC guide for the TRS-80; I remember learning practical BASIC from that manual, and only later realizing just how comparatively good it was. According to contemporary reviewers, Theresa Welsh’s Lazy Writer manual was another of the standouts.

But where Theresa’s chapter takes off is when she starts talking about the heady freedom of the day. It’s hard to understand today, when computers do their best to hide how they do what they do, but the way you got your computer back then to do anything was, you wrote it. “While there were some TRS-80 owners who were pure users, in the beginning there were only programmers.” Programming was almost cool. When I bought a TRS-80, used, in 1980, and sold computer programs to magazines like 80-Micro7, it meant an article with photo in the local newspaper–not the newspaper for my population 700 home town but the Muskegon Chronicle from population 150,000 Muskegon. Our science class took a “field trip” to my basement to see my personal computer.

Lazy Writer logo

The Lazy Writer logo, used throughout its life. This is from the August, 1983 80 Micro; click to see it in context. Yes, we typed in all that stuff!

I started college in the fall of 1982, and was no longer the only guy around with a computer.8 The two guys in the dorm room next to me both had TRS-80 Model I’s. Elsewhere on the floor, one of the guys I’d end up gaming with nonstop for the next four years (and beyond) had a TRS-80 Color Computer (the grey one, eventually updated to the white CoCo III), another had a TRS-80 Model III, and another would buy a Commodore 64 during the year. The weird guy down the hall had an Atari 400 or 800, I don’t remember which. We did our first-semester programming on a Terak in the computer labs. A wide variety of computers, all of which you programmed yourself. A couple of years later and that wouldn’t have happened: a year after I graduated I returned for a part-time job, and it was all IBM-PCs and Macs.9

Programmers were creative people who developed their ideas through use of a computer language. They had vision…

It seemed like it would last forever at the time, but the heyday of the TRS-80 was less than a decade. Radio Shack never seemed to understand that computers were not yet an appliance, and that they needed constant improvement. They were still trying to sell relatively minor improvements on the Model I when the first IBM PCs and Apple Macintoshes were coming out. The Model IV supported up to 128 kb, not much more than the Model I’s 48 kb max, where the new computers went up to 512 kb and also could do a lot more.

The computer, once the province of a kind of big business priesthood who controlled its use, went through a rebirth as a personal tool, but has been gradually reverting back to the control of corporate managers, at least in the workplace. As the hobbyist market was lost to business users, learning about computers became institutionalized. As we produce more technicians with certifications, ordinary people will know less about the machines they depend on. Fewer computer users know a programming language. Vernon Hester used to watch a screen of hexadecimal codes go by on the screen, a look of intense concentration on his face replaced by an “aha” look as he located an error. Where are the people who, like Vernon, can read hex codes?

If you are interested in the history of personal computing, you have to read this. It made me drag out some of my old 80-Micros just to take a look at some of those old ads and BASIC listings.

“It’s useful to remember that there was a time when it was all new and wonderful.”

August 8, 2012: Priming the Pump: TRS-80 slide show

David and Theresa Welsh, authors of Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution, have created a fascinating 40-slide slide show of “the first complete microcomputer”. It’s filled with ads from the era and magazine cover photos, as well as photos of people using the TRS-80 in its various incarnations.

Download it and take a look. It’s a lot of fun. If you enjoy the slide show, get their book, too. I enjoyed the hell out of it.. And “Happy Retro Computing!”

  1. That would be the SOL-20 from Processor Technology.

  2. Dick Miller, who with his wife Jill were among the first buyers and built a business around renting TRS-80s and demoing them. Based partially on their having been an early adopter who ended up with two models when most people couldn’t get their hands on one.

  3. It sold, new, in 1983, for only $800!

  4. The electronics hobbyist magazine Popular Electronics pretty much died because I was not alone feeling that way; they first changed their name to Computers & Electronics in 1982, and stopped publishing in 1985. I do still have my ham radio license from this period–and the radio, which is in the closet in case of a zombie attack. But the last heady “electronics” project I’ve done was over twenty years ago, when I soldered an extra 512kb of RAM onto my TRS-80 Color Computer III to bring it to a megabyte.

  5. You would be hard-pressed to find mom and pop software priced at $175 today, even with inflation. Nisus runs $79 for the Pro version and $45 for Express. (It’s likely the increased market size that makes lower prices more feasible, as well as the ability to distribute directly through the Internet.)

  6. As the only TRS-80 owner in my small town, I had no one to pirate from. I was able to justify one software purchase, and remember going to a hamfest with something like $50 hoping to find a discounted version of Scripsit (it went for $99 direct from Radio Shack); that’s what my paper route income could afford. Instead I saw a Space Invaders-style game, and decided I could write my own word processor but not my own video game. So I bought 80-Invaders and wrote a basic word processor in BASIC.

    Besides being more difficult to write, buying the less-expensive game left room for one more game; when I got home, I looked through the ads in 80 Micro and chose a chess game, probably Chess-80 from Wayne Green’s Instant Software.

  7. I sold my first program to a two-issue? magazine called Hobby Computer Handbook. I don’t know where I ran across the magazine, but it made me realize that with the money I’d already saved up for a programmable calculator, I could save for several more months and afford an actual computer. The program I wrote and sold to them emulated those old LED baseball games. It was never printed, but fortunately for me they paid on acceptance rather than on publication, and I used the money to buy an Expansion Interface for my Model I.

  8. Our math teacher also had a computer, an Apple II, but she wasn’t a guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had the only two computers in our town at the time. She bought the computer herself, and then brought it into school for us to use in her class.

  9. Hypercard, which was pretty cool and engendered a similar community among users, wasn’t released until 1987.

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

Recommendation: Purchase Now!

If you enjoyed Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution…

If you enjoy Radio Shack, you might also be interested in Radio Shack advertises the Color Computer vs. the Model III.

If you enjoy TRS-80, you might also be interested in Model 100 from 1916, Baseball in the rain, 80-Micro and the TRS-80, 1983-1984, Radio Shack advertises the Color Computer vs. the Model III, and Review of the TRS-80 Model 100/200.