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Trash Eighties: Radio Shack's Golden Years
An ode to the TRS-80, flyer-side chats, and all those overpriced 555 timers I melted with my enormous soldering gun.
If you grew up in a time or a place without Radio Shack, you may have to sit most of this one out, because it’s going to be really nothing more than a fond look back at this flawed but ever-present and sometimes pioneering technology retailer.
Most US readers at least probably do remember though the “Radio Shack of the Mall” — the 1990’s-and-beyond version of the store that sold (or attempted to sell) cellphones, accessories, toys, pricey USB cables, and various consumer electronics devices.
While these years of the company saw the most stores in operation and highest gross revenue (but unfortunately not profit), most who were around for the decades that preceded this would argue that the true pinnacle years for the company came then.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in Radio Shack in the 1990s or 2000s. It was kind of depressing for me, I felt it was basically a shadow of its former self. And when it went bankrupt in 2015, I wasn’t particularly upset. The reason was I, and most of the world, had long since moved on from Radio Shack by then, finding cheaper and better places to shop.
But I would be lying if I said there was not a wistful feeling when I think back to those years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a kid who couldn’t seem to get enough of this company's products.
My first experiences at Radio Shack were probably in the early or mid-’70s, but the history here is much older, going back to 1921. Two ham-radio-enthusiast brothers, Theodore and Milton Deutschmann, created the store and named it after the literal shacks where radio transmission equipment was kept. (My dad recently told me a story about being invited as a kid to go to Radio Shack, and being disappointed to find it was not, in fact, a shack.)
In the pre-microprocessor era from 1921 until almost the 1980s, much of Radio Shack’s business did in fact center on radios, and the ham radio and electronics hobbyists who needed replacement parts and components for their projects. Ham radio was the internet of the first half of the 20th century, and its enthusiasts were the Makers of the day. Magazines like Popular Electronics would feature DIY projects using components you could get at Radio Shack.
My time with Radio Shack starts as the sun was setting on this analog era. I had long been fascinated with electrical and electronic stuff, even as a little kid in the late 60’s. I would build elaborate networks of antennas for my crystal radio using lead gardening wire (Yeah. We had a nice daily allowance of lead back then).
Probably one of the earliest Radio Shack products I owned was one of these 150-in-one type experimenters kits, that featured tiny springs you would stick wires into to connect up circuits.
My parents were not engineers and knew as little about electronics as I did. But they supported my interests by buying me stuff like this. Unfortunately, though, the 150-in-one kit was a poor teaching tool. You would wire up the circuits as instructed, they would work (or not), but no matter what you never really got a good sense of any of the theory behind what was going on.
What I was pretty solid on theory-wise was the lightbulb, battery, switch circuit. I could reliably build that in various forms, and it was kind of my signature project for a while. One day I took a (working) portable AM radio I had, gutted it, and replaced the innards with a battery, switch, and bulb. When I proudly showed my creation to my parents, my dad asked a confirming question:
“So you turned a radio… into a flashlight?”
“Yep!” I triumphantly said, and they did a reasonably bad job of withholding their snickering about it. I might have been disappointed, but at some level, I understood even back then that this was essentially down-cycling. (Almost every time I use my cellphone as a flashlight today, I think about this though.)
I am pretty sure that it was the joy of building stuff, however meager, that overrode any doubts, and I persisted at my flashlight-building hobby. Back to the Shack again, as I would go there to buy toggle switches, battery holders, incandescent panel-mounted bulbs of various colors, and project boxes. I would drill holes, install bulbs and switches, and build boxes that were essentially four-channel flashlights.
But there were hundreds of other intriguing things, hanging on the walls in little plastic packages inside the store. Resistors and Capacitors, and as the 70’s wore on, other things. Small-scale integrated circuits like 74xx series TTL logic chips, LM741 Op Amps, 555 timers, 7-segment LEDs, and such. Things I knew nothing about. I was still not ready for the theory of any of it then, but I was completely fascinated and ready to build stuff with these things, anyway.
Enter Forrest M. Mims III, seminal Radio Shack figure and author to this day of new books on electronics theory and projects. If you are interested in learning how to build electronic circuits but have no starting knowledge, you could do much, much worse than to pick up a copy of his Getting Started In Electronics book. This is a cool cookbook of easy-to-build circuits, but he sneaks in a really comprehensive tutorial about the theory of things, along the way.
Armed with one of Mims’ mini-guides from Radio Shack, I would build all sorts of cool stuff: tone generators, moisture detectors, mini-AM radio transmitters. Again, without much understanding of all the theory - but some of it was getting picked up anyway through osmosis. I would spend hours looking through the Radio Shack Catalog, imagining things I might build with this or that, and then regularly bug my parents to take me on shopping trips there.
As an aside, I find it interesting that Radio Shack had no direct catalog mail-order sales, and the free quarterly catalog was really an ad for you to come into the store. They would build their brand through the catalog, as well as the weekly flyers that featured the “Flyer-Side Chat”, a play on Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats — a general opinion article penned by then Tandy president Lewis Kornfield. Really nothing more than another ad I think, but it was quirky to put an opinion piece in a weekly sale flyer, and I would read it almost every time.
Probably the biggest problem I faced at some point with my Radio Shack projects became that of construction. In my project-box-flashlight-building days, I had learned a little about how to solder stuff, but it involved using my dad’s enormous Weller 300 watt soldering gun, which was intended for heavy-duty electrical work. Pull the trigger on that bad boy, and whatever it is aimed at heats up to the temperature of the sun.
Good for soldering 10-2 gauge Romex, kind of bad for soldering 555 timers. I was routinely turning ICs into silicon puddles, and melting good-sized holes into the sides of project boxes I was working in, and I remember being super frustrated about it. Replacements were not cheap, either. In my gushing over Radio Shack of Old, I would never go as far as to say the place was a bargain. Prices for electronic components there in 1976 were probably still higher than what you would pay today mail-order.
And mail-order companies like Mouser and Digi-Key were in operation in the ’70s, so in theory, I might have been able to get a better deal. But these stores were squarely aimed at the professional market, and the chance of me getting interested in electronics back then probably would have been a lot lower, without an actual store to poke around in (and often impulse-buy from).
Anyway, I resolved my soldering woes, thanks to a very kind neighbor and mentor of mine who was an electronics teacher, and somewhere in there pointed out that I would do much better with a 15-watt soldering iron than the 300-watt gun. 15 watts sounded dubiously low at first, but I was fairly soon a convert once I bought one. This RS acquisition along with solderless breadboards became my go-to Making strategy for electronics projects, to this day. (I did eventually upgrade a bit on the soldering iron front though to a nice Hakko station )
That same neighbor brought home a new Radio Shack product in the summer of 1980 when school vacation started: A TRS-80 Model I computer. This was Radio Shack’s first computer product and a big leap, from the analog world of their previous customer base, into the brand new digital world.
My neighbor was primarily bringing the computer home to prevent it from “getting lost” in the empty school over the summer, but he kindly gave me full access to it, pretty much whenever I wanted.
I grew up on a lake, which sounds aristocratic, but was anything but. It was a working-class neighborhood with small, close-together houses that (back then, at least) were quite affordable, and were for the most part year-round residences, as opposed to vacation properties.
Living on a lake then had an informalism to it that is hard to describe. The lake served as kind of a big communal backyard, and you really get to know the neighbors whether you want to, or not. It was a pretty common thing for neighbors to drop by unannounced, or for people to go into other people’s houses uninvited, even when they were not there.
This was the kind of arrangement I had with our neighbor, and I would just kind of wander in at whatever time I liked to use the TRS-80 in a spare room, like I was family. Often in the summer while swimming I would think of some cool idea for a program, and then quickly dry off, run down the beach to the neighbor, and fire up the TRS-80. To this day whenever I swim (particularly in that lake), I get a powerful urge afterward to go write some code.
In the first few years of the 1980’s, I learned to program in BASIC, almost exclusively on the TRS-80. Other machines of the day like the Apple II and Altair 8800 could run circles around the TRS-80, maybe earning it the title “Trash Eighty”. But I give Radio Shack a lot of credit on this one anyway, because they invested heavily in it during the early years of home computers, and you could actually see, try, and buy these machines at your nearby local Radio Shack store.
Early users of the TRS-80 got to experience the wonderful joys of loading programs off of cassette tape, a process that could take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a half hour or more for long programs. The system computed a checksum as it ever-so-slowly loaded your program, and treated you to a red light of doom at the end, if something went wrong along the way. You’d wiggle the tape, clean the player heads, blow on it like it was a Nintendo cartridge, pray you haven't lost your program forever, and try again.
In the years that followed, Radio Shack came out with better machines featuring floppy drives, and their own DOS version, TRSDOS (“Trash DOS”, of course). I even remember going to an in-store class at Radio Shack on how to use TRSDOS — they were very dedicated to expanding their computer presence through the 1980’s, marketing heavily to schools and businesses. It was the right move, even if in the end the momentum could not be sustained.
But as I have written before, even good things don’t last forever in the tech world, and Radio Shack’s computer ambitions in the ‘80s ran up against competitive headwinds of increasing intensity. I guess a telling summation of this might be, even though the TRS-80 was the machine I literally learned to program on, I never aspired to own one. When my income rose to a level where I could buy a computer, I chose to go the Commodore VIC-20 route, which had both a lower starting price point and in my opinion anyway, offered a lot more bang for the buck.
You kind of know the rest, even if you were not there for it. Boxed in by a host of capable competitors like Commodore, Apple, and the vast array of PC retailers like Gateway and Dell, Radio Shack was forced to eventually abandon their computer ambitions in the 1990’s, and shift their strategy towards selling consumer electronics like cell phones. Also a doomed endeavor, and as stated the company went bankrupt in 2015. Remnants of it still persist online, but it really isn’t a thing anymore in any relevant sense.
I don’t think people starting off in computers and technology today can have any kind of equivalent experience to what it was like exploring tech in a world that was not yet teeming with computers; it was in many ways, magical. But I would not say it is worse today, just different.
The wealth of components, materials, and tools available to the electronics and computer hobbyist today far exceeds anything we had in the 1970’s, and the Maker scene is alive and well with a strong community of hobbyists who can, thanks to the internet, work together rather than in isolation. I definitely enjoy the selection and prices of computer and electronic products online. Far better than Radio Shack in both regards. But I do miss browsing in-person at a local store, and the ability to immediately get something you need right away.
Maybe you are an old guy and have some Radio Shack memories of your own to share; if so please comment below. I skipped a bunch of stuff, like the 5 watt Radio Shack CB walkie-talkies my friend Dave and I bought and would use on our adventures, and the RS intercom system we rigged between our houses by running hundreds of feet of 300-ohm antenna wire through our neighbor’s yard without permission. And I’ve got a few more things to say about my programming days on the TRS-80, but that one should probably wait for another time.
We can’t go back to the Shack, and maybe there is good reason. The world has moved on. But it does deserve a place in history. And strangely, I find I even kind of miss the cashier sales pitch to sign up for that dumb battery-of-the-month club!
Next Time: How twenty years ago, I invented a programming language that will one day rule the earth. I’ll be ruminating about fixing bad code, and the possible end-of-days to be ushered in by our future computer overlords. On-Brand Madness next in: The Coming Age of Natural Ned
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