August 3, 1977: The TRS-80 Personal Computer Goes on Sale

Don French
Don French, a buyer for the consumer electronics chain Tandy Radio Shack (TRS), believed that Radio Shack should offer an assembled personal computer and hired engineer Steve Leininger to design it. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

It was with minimal expectations that, on August 3, 1977, Tandy Corporation teamed up with Radio Shack to release the TRS-80, one of the first personal computers available to consumer markets. While Don French—a buyer for the Tandy Radio Shack consumer electronic chain—had convinced some Tandy executives of the need to release a personal computer, most felt it was unlikely to gross substantial profits. This bulky item with complex operating procedures would never sell, they thought, more than 1,000 units in its first month.

But as soon as it hit the shelves, the $600 TRS-80, a hefty price for Radio Shack customers who were used to spending much less on their electronic needs, sold like hot cakes. There was something about these new computers that ignited fascination on the part of the American public.

“People were willing to put up with the difficulties of doing something just to play with these computers and see if they could make them work,” says David K. Allison, a curator of information technology at the National Museum of American History.

As it turned out, the TRS-80 surpassed even the most cautious sales estimates by tenfold within its first month on the market; the burgeoning prospects of a new era in personal electronics and computing could no longer be denied.

The TRS-80 was not the first personal computer for sale. The MITS Altair, a “microcomputer” first introduced in a 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine, is generally credited with jump starting the personal computer industry. Both Apple and IBM had begun making personal computers by 1977. But the TRS-80 was one of the first products that came fully assembled and ready to use, bridging the gap in accessibility between hobbyists—who took interest in the actual building of the computer—and the average American consumer, who wanted to know what this new, cutting-edge technology had in store for them.

The TRS-80 had no hard drive and four kilobytes of memory—for comparison’s sake, Apple’s new pocket-sized iPhone 4 has 512 megabytes of memory.

“Even if you bought a machine that was pretty much self-functioning like the TRS-80 was, just learning to do anything on it was difficult. There was limited software on it, you could play a few games, but word processing was rudimentary and had a lot of codes that you had to learn,” says Allison.

Though still in business today, Tandy has become primarily a phone manufacturer, but the TRS-80 proved to be the little computer engine that could.

An original TRS-80 computer is held in the collections of the National Museum of American History.

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