Tag Archives: TRS-80

Preserving My TRS-80 Likes Me

Things really were simpler then, at least when the topic is computing and the era was before 1980. One document in our catalog (item #1030) is,

My TRS-80 Likes Me – When I teach kids how to use it!, by Bob Albrecht.


The eight page document is “a resource guide for the elementary teacher.” Within those eight pages are example programs, fundamental computing concepts, and a playful attitude. Similar guides are possible now, but their instructions are likely to be layered on browsers, apps, and operating systems. Back then it was: boot the machine, type the code and RUN. But the guide also taught more fundamental concepts, as well as setting a tone and culture that encouraged kids to play and learn.

We’re preserving such documents so researchers and the curious can study and recall an era that redefined the way we learn.

The programs were all in BASIC. He prefaced the text with a disclosure:

“IMPORTANT NOTICE! I am not saying that the TRS-80 is the best computer for a// purposes. I am not saying the TRS-80 is the best overall educational computer. I am saying that I think the TRS-80 is the best computer that I have used (so far) to teach elementary school children, grades 4, 5 and 6, how to understand and enjoy BASIC.”

Programs start with four lines, grow to over a dozen, and end with one program that has three dozen lines. Elementary school students learned to print their name, but also how to write games and create graphics for the screen. 

At the time (1979), BASIC had been available for about 16 years. There were advocates for programming languages like FORTRAN, and for limiting classes to college students and graduates; but Bob knew younger people could learn to program, too.

As he wrote:

Why not? They control the future; so, let them control the computer, the tool of the future; give your kids this tool: let them shape it in ways unknown to us. Then stand back and enjoy!!”

One lesson that helps illustrate the fundamentals that had to be taught were “Tell them about the prompt(> ) and the cursor(-).” Cursors continue, but > prompts are hidden behind those layers described above.

Starting with such simple lessons is logical, but the more important lesson may be the attitude.

“Let the kids do all the hands-on stuff. Be patient- let them make mistakes, correct their own mistakes. and above all, encourage them to EXPERIMENT!”
“Now the fun begins.””

There may only be eight pages, but there’s enough in them to provide insights into history.

Bob Albrecht didn’t do all of the work. As he said in an interview we posted earlier, “people like Gerald Brown and Mary Jo did such a beautiful job of pasting it up, laying it out,…” The story behind the group effort leads to People’s Computer Company (our previous post), the Whole Earth Catalog, and about 32 more books on BASIC published as recently as 1996.

History is a network. Documents influence other documents. Contributors contribute in more than one place, and unintentionally inspire others. There’s enough to explore whether you’re interested in early educational technology, BASIC, the TRS-80, creative hand-produced publications, or a community that mixed programming with wine tasting and Greek dancing. (Read Interview with Bob Albrecht by Jon Cappetta for more.)

Preserving such documents for researchers and the curious is why we’re creating our virtual museum. Even one edition, like this one, can provide a cornerstone from which to build broader research projects and histories. Tell us where it leads you.


Peoples Computer Company In Our Catalog

Will personal computers raise or lower educational standards? Magazines from the mid-seventies asked that question before most people knew the term “personal computer” or had access to the internet. Reading those forty year old articles is a good way to explore whether we’ve made progress, or are simply asking the same questions. Even though the hardware used in schools now includes tablets and phones as well as desk top computers, and they’re all connected into a vast network, it’s not clear that students are performing better academically.

Teachers, students, business people and hobbyists all relied on a growing number of magazines to educate themselves about electronics, computer software and the myriad ways computers could be used. We’re protecting such publications, particularly ones that reflect the name of our parent nonprofit organization, LO*OP Center, Inc. One example (item #1018 in our catalog) is People’s Computer Magazine (volume 7 number 3) from November-December 1978.  It’s useful in researching questions about the impact of computing on learning and can lead to a wide variety of other research topics. The 1970s was a dynamic era that laid the groundwork for our still dynamically-changing present.

Screenshot 2017-11-17 at 10.40.55

People learned about computers and computing from other people, hence, the appropriately named magazine “People’s Computer Company” was started in 1972. By the time our example issue was printed, the name had become People’s Computers and was just about to become Recreational Computing. Two years later, it became part of Compute! Magazine, which continued to publish until 1994. Those 22 years represent the dramatic changes in technology, the way we use it, and the nature of the publishing industry.

Browsing through the articles reveals familiar products mixed with now-forgotten topics, products, and ventures.

Speak & Spell

Speak & Spell was introduced as an educational toy that revolutionized educational electronics by using solid state components. Solid state made it lighter, simpler, easier to use, and more likely to survive a young child’s environment. The device used a voice synthesizer that prompted the child to spell the word they heard. This was far simpler than earlier games that required media like cassette tapes. It continued to sell until 1992.

Radio Shack

Radio Shack began in 1921 to provide supplies to electronics hobbyists and audiophiles. LO*OP Center founder, Liza Loop, remembers visiting this first Radio Shack retail store with her father in the 1940s. In 1963, Tandy Corporation, a chain of leather craft stores bought Radio Shack with its 9 electronics stores and began a transition from leather to electronics. It commissioned the design of the TRS-80, one of the most popular early personal computers. Liza took a job as a computer sales person at the Radio Shack store in Santa Rosa, California so she could buy computers at the employee price and resell them at her cost to local schools. Schools at the time were not accustomed to paying retail and Radio Shack refused to offer an educational discount. Liza’s strategy made it possible to get many more computers into local classrooms. Radio Shack has finally faded, but in 1978 they were working to stay in the forefront opening fifty computer centers for sales, service, education, and general community support.

Marin Computer Center

On a more local level, the Marin Computer Center celebrated being open for a year in this issue of People’s Computers. Similar to our parent organization (LO*OP Center) David and Annie Fox established a non-profit to “bring the wonders of advanced technology to the people.” That sentiment was echoed in People’s Computer Company motto;

Computers are mostly
used against people instead of for people
used to control people instead of to free them
time to change all that –

we need a . . .



Early EdTech

Before hashtags like #EdTech, academics were considering whether “personal computers raise or lower educational standards.” The magazine didn’t just mention the topic. It included an article written by Howard Peele called, The Case for APL in Education. APL was the acronym for A Programming Language, a language that was already 18 years old, and that continues to be used. The question continues, and Howard Peele continues to teach at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

IBM Selectric

In 1978, typewriters were more common and less expensive than home printers, which is why hobbyists were interested in modifying their typewriters. APL, the language described in Howard Peele’s article was influenced by the available character set on the popular electric typewriter, the IBM Selectric.

Do It Yourself

We may say DIY now, but in 1978 it was assumed that most computer users would customize or create their own hardware and software.

The issue provides information for hardware.

  • Turning an IBM Selectric into a printer
  • Building a computer from a MICROSTAR circuit board ($1,270 in 1978 equivalent to $3380 in 2017)
  • An RCA board that adds color to a monitor
  • An RCA board that adds a music synthesizer

More space was devoted to free software. The original media for installing programs was a printed copy of the program that was typed in by hand. Very open source.

  • Starwars Hodge
  • Runequest
  • TRS-80 Frogs
  • Distance and Error Checking coders

In the 64 pages is much more information revealing the capabilities and the culture of the time. The graphics and the layout demonstrate an era when work was done by hand. People’s Computers represents a transition from manual to technological, part of the transition when culture went from being based on paper to being based on electrons.

Screenshot 2017-11-18 at 10.35.58There are also some fun reasons to browse the magazine. Bob Albrecht, founder of People’s Computer Company,  had long used a dragon for a mascot, which led to some playful graphics. There was also a long-running cartoon series called FORTRAN MAN. In this episode, FM fights the “despotic Glitchmaster.”

In a demonstration of cooperation instead of competition, the back page is devoted to yet another publication that had a long history, Dr. Dobb’s Journal – Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia, which only ceased publication in 2014.

Preserving such documents for researchers and the curious is why we’re creating our virtual museum. Even one edition, like this one, can provide a cornerstone from which to build broader research projects and histories. Tell us where it leads you.

TRS-80 Blacksburg and Pioneering

This quote from from Earles McCaul typifies the experience of many computing pioneers.

“After contacting all the ‘known’ publishing houses and finding nothing suitable, I then contacted The Blacksburg Group. Their immediate response was (paraphrased): “Well if *WE* don’t have it, would *YOU* be interested in writing it?” This unsolicited offer literally floored me.”

Earles shared his story over on David Larsen’s Bugbook blog. The first people to be aware of personal computers were the people who were already adventurous enough to manage to gain access to minicomputers like the PDPs. Groups like the Yuma Computer Club were collections of people who met to talk about, rather than touch, computers. When the first Altairs and such showed up, they were there – and not much else was. There were very few manuals. Even monitors and keyboards weren’t necessarily included, but those were shorter hurdles. Computers that could fit in a car were (trans)portable and a cause for great discussions.

Discussions were great, but to really do anything required scholastic and technical research. Trial and error was the norm. And, as Earles learned, looking for help could get you identified as an expert.

The TRS-80 was the Tandy Radio Shack computer that anyone could buy, if they were in stock.

And what program was Earles McCaul interested in? Assembly – the computer language that lives in the barely decipherable realm between the ones and zeros of machine code and the “high” level codes like BASIC. It was undoubtedly a triumph to claim to “TRS-80 Assembly Language Made Simple”, yet that was his challenge, his book, and his accomplishment.

We encourage you to read his post, and to consider how many other computers, languages, and uses were made useful by people with the authority of “Well if *WE* don’t have it, would *YOU* be interested in writing it?”