Electronics retailer Radio Shack played a key role in computer history with its TRS-80. The company, which began in Boston as a supplier for HAM radio enthusiasts, grew into a nationwide retail chain following its acquisition by Charles Tandy in 1963. Tandy increased the company’s manufacturing capabilities and spearheaded a rapid expansion of its retail stores, growing the company from nine stores in 1963 to nearly 7,000 by 1978.
The growing hobbyist interest in microcomputers following the release of MITS Altair 8800 provided the opening for Radio Shack’s entry into the computer business. In 1976, company executive Don French tapped Steve Leininger—a 24-year-old National Semiconductor employee and Homebrew Computer Club member—to design an inexpensive computer kit. Within two months, the project morphed into a quest to build a fully-assembled computer that would retail for under $600. Leininger settled on a Zilog Z-80 microprocessor for the system and spec’d a recently discontinued 12” black and white RCA television (minus the tuner) for a video display; to save costs, the team let the television dictate the design language, including the “Mercedes grey” plastic case. In all, development costs (including tooling) amounted to just $150,000. Still, the computer was a risky venture for a company that had never sold anything over $500 before. Charles Tandy green-lit production of just 3,000 computers, figuring Radio Shack stores could use the computer for inventory if the product flopped. It didn’t.
Released in 1977, the TRS-80 (Tandy Radio Shack [Zilog Z]-80) made headlines. The $599 list price included a CPU/keyboard, video display, cassette player for program storage and a BASIC interpreter. Consumer demand overwhelmed even the most optimistic forecasts and by 1979, well over 100,000 TRS-80 computers had been sold. Moreover, the TRS-80 begat repeat purchases and Radio Shack stores hummed with the steady traffic of customers seeking upgrades, service and training. The TRS-80 spawned an entire ecosystem of peripherals produced by Radio Shack and others, as well as a thriving community of users. Although it would soon be eclipsed by the Apple II and, later, the IBM PC, the TRS-80 provided an early validation of consumer demand for microcomputers.