Carolyn Said, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2001
The Apple Lisa, the IBM PCjr and the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 laptop all were introduced in the same year, 1983 -- eons ago by computer standards.
Eighteen years have come and gone; entire industries have risen and fallen; innumerable tons of computers have been consigned to the scrap heap.
If you want to see a Lisa or a PCjr, you'll have to visit a computer museum.
But about a million of the Tandy laptops are still in use, on factory floors and whale-watching boats; by reporters on assignment and researchers in Antarctica.
A sturdy 6-pounder, the Model 100 looks more like a Speak & Spell toy than a state-of-the-art computer.
It didn't have aluminum, titanium or Pentium anything. There was no GUI; it wasn't WYSIWYG. It ran 16 hours on four AA batteries. You turned it on, you typed, you sent your words over phone lines at a glacial 300 bps. It cost $799 for 8-Kb version; $1,134 for the 32-Kb version.
And it was a big hit. It could lay claim to being the first true laptop. The only previous "portable" computer was the 24-pound, suitcase-size Osborne, which came out in 1980.
Tandy, with headquarters in Fort Worth, sold 6 million units of the Model 100, and its slimmer, higher-memory brother, the Model 102. In the late '80s, the original laptop was displaced by machines that ran Microsoft Windows, but somehow the Tandys didn't go away.
In the fast-forward culture of the digital age, where every gadget is nearly obsolete before you peel out of Fry's parking lot, the Model 100 and 102 laptop stand out for their staying power.
"It's one of those machines that immediately becomes your friend," said Rick Hanson of Pleasant Hill, CA.
Hanson, whose vanity license plate reads LAPTOP, has certainly become a close buddy of the 100 and 102. For years he has run the user group Club 100 (www.Club100.org); he repairs, refurbishes and sells the vintage laptops as a sideline. His workshop is a tinkerer's delight, crammed floor to ceiling with neatly stacked model car kits and computer components. One shelf holds two dozen Model 102s that he is fixing for reporters at the Los Angeles Times.
Talking a mile a minute, he grabbed a few simple components off the shelves.
"Let's throw a 102 together," he said, laying down the plastic base, then rapidly slipping in a motherboard, switch sliders, a cardboard insulator, the LCD screen, the keyboard and the top. He switched the machine on, displaying its simple roster of software: a text editor, telecom package, schedule book, address book and BASIC.
Hanson lifted it above his head, and, chuckling at the expression on visitors' faces, flung the laptop onto the floor. It bounced a little; he scooped it up and dropped it once more for good measure. Then he switched it on: Everything sprang back to life, as good as new.
"You can throw it across the room, let it land on concrete, and it'll still work," he said. "Try that with your new laptop." That hardiness has endeared the "Model T" to people who really need a resilient computer.
"We can get high winds out there with a lot of whitecaps," said Tom Kieckhefer, who runs the Pacific Cetacean Group in Marina (Monterey County). The research organization uses Tandy laptops to record its observations of whales, dolphins and porpoises in Monterey Bay. Kieckhefer got his first Tandy laptop in 1988 to take aboard a 16-foot inflatable boat. "I used Saran Wrap to cover it if there was a lot of spray or rain," he said.
A customized program written in BASIC lets researchers record observations such as when whales blow or breach; their respiration rates; and their positions (the laptop is connected to a Global Positioning System device).
Some researchers have moved on to Windows laptops because they need more storage and more software than the Tandy can provide (it has neither hard drive nor floppy drive).
The fastest modem connection the Tandy can support is 19,200 bps, sluggish compared with today's DSL and cable modems. (It comes with something even more pokey: a built-in 300-bps modem that sends text more slowly than the average person can type.)
And the Tandys certainly aren't immune to the elements: "I've had to replace some chips because I saw some corrosion developing,"
Kieckhefer said. But he still likes the Tandys for their low price and durability. (Hanson, probably the leading supplier, charges $250 for a Model 100 and $350 for a Model 102.)
At the Los Angeles Zoo, primate researchers rely on 22 Tandy laptops to collect data on the chimpanzees, such as an experiment where the chimps control a mister that sprays visitors.
"We use them rather than newer machines because they're more rugged and fast enough for our needs," said Cathleen Cox, director of research for the zoo. "They very seldom need repair."
Researchers stationed outside the exhibits enter observations either by typing them in or running a bar code wand over a list of preselected behaviors.
The laptops, which come with a standard serial port, are then connected to regular PCs to transfer the data.
"The Model 100 series is completely data compatible with every computer on the face of the earth," said Hanson, evoking images of Jeff Goldblum in "Independence Day" hooking up his Apple PowerBook to the computer in the alien spaceship.
The laptop's lore is good for some nifty trivia questions. For example: Who wrote the Model 100's software? Answer: Bill Gates. It was reportedly the last time Microsoft's co-founder personally wrote code. Gates reminisced about his role in the Model 100 a couple of years ago, when Microsoft and Tandy revealed a new partnership.
Tracy Allen, president of EME Systems in Berkeley, uses a Model 102 for trouble-shooting the weather-monitoring sensors he develops. "With its built-in programming language, it's a good 'sniffer,' " he said. "If something's going wrong, I can attach a 102 to (a device), and tap into it like a wiretap. I look at the Tandy screen and see what's coming across as I probe with different wires." Hanson is impatient with the computer world's push for newer, faster models.
"Most folks are so brainwashed," he said. "If the computer isn't new, it's obsolete. I remind them: Have you taken an airplane ride lately? How old was that plane? Is it still doing the job?"
E-mail Carolyn Said at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Original Laptop Computer . . . 1983