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Stroll down Memory Lane to the time of ancient laptops...

By Erik Lacitis / Times staff columnist
Northwest Life: Friday, February 01, 2001

Once again, I was reminded that we live in a warp-speed age. It happened when a reader was incredulous at my writing that, in 1988, I was using a laptop.

She couldn't believe that there were laptops around back then, because, you know, ancient history is the first "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode in March of 1997.

A few decades ago, parents bored their kids by telling them about shoveling snow out there on some remote farm in Minnesota.

Now, if you want to start the stories flowing from your Dad or Gramps, just say, "TRS-80." For good measure, maybe add, "Model 100" and "Radio Shack." There were other early laptops, but this was the one that started the revolution. A couple of years ago in England, a magazine put together a list of the Top 100 gadgets of the century. Right along with the Model T Ford was the Model 100.

So gather around, fellow geeks, and let me tell you about laptops back then.

Here is what the Model 100, the basic model that Radio Shack sold for $799 in 1984, featured:

No hard drive! No floppy drive! A memory so minuscule that tops, you could type 10 pages and then everything froze! A modem that transmitted at the rate of 300 baud! Three-hundred, baby! You could watch those documents s...l...o...w...l...y scroll across the screen.

But you have to start somewhere.

Even Bill Gates wrote about these laptops in his book, "The Road Ahead," because he and Paul Allen wrote the programming language that ended up in these original laptops.

Journalists around the country became very familiar with the TRS-80s when newspapers began buying them. Suddenly, you weren't dictating stories; you were sending them in electronically. You could go to the press area at a presidential convention, and you'd see row after row of reporters typing their stories on the Radio Shacks.

Then there was the nickname for TRS-80s, "Trash 80s."

Maybe you had a couple of other stories in the computer, and you'd be typing away and it all froze because the memory was full. Or maybe you wanted to transmit the story and, guess what, lots of motels back then didn't have jacks on their phones. So you ended up having to transmit acoustically.

This meant hooking up rubber cups to the phone, but only after you called the newspaper's computer line and heard that whiny modem electronic sound. Sometimes, if the room phone went through a switchboard, you couldn't make a connection, or there was too much static and your big story ended up as a big garble. So you ended taking everything to the lobby, trying to find a pay phone because they seemed to have less garble.

A familiar sight back then was these laptop users balancing the machines while trying to hook up the rubber cups.

Then the story wouldn't transmit because there wasn't enough memory left to run the "send" program. Meanwhile, back home, an editor was getting an ulcer about deadlines.

But it really wasn't the TRS-80's fault. That was the technology back then. Rick Hanseroth, with this paper's technical-services department, always thought the "Trash 80" nickname was a bum rap.

"They were bulletproof, unless you dropped them," he said. It didn't help that the reporters were technologically clueless. Rick remembered a tech guy spending hours with a reporter trying to send a story from New York City, using the acoustic couplers.

It turned out that the reporter had accidentally pulled the wires out of the coupler, and then stuffed them back in.

Radio Shack doesn't have records of how many TRS-80s were sold in their run from 1983 to 1991. But Rick Hanson, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., who maintains a Web site devoted to the machines (, believes about 6 million of the laptops were sold. And he thinks at least a million are still hard at work, some of them in industrial uses.

Hanson reconditions TRS-80s. He told me about a tool-and-die firm that uses these ancient laptops for controlling milling equipment. All the computer has to do is tell the equipment to move left, right, up, down.

"Why would you (use) a billion-dollar machine to do the same thing in which you could invest a couple of hundred dollars?" he said. "If that 2-door, 4-cylinder VW gets you from Point A to Point B, and that's all you're going to do, why invest in something else?"

Four years ago, Ross Anderson, then a Seattle Times reporter, wrote a wonderful series in which he retraced the trail of the Klondike Gold Rush. He could have taken a satellite phone or a laptop with the latest gimmicks. Instead, he chose a TRS-80 Model 100, figuring that if a canoe he was using tipped over, hey, the computer now only was worth a couple hundred bucks. That's how he transmitted his stories, whenever he stopped somewhere with a phone. No hard-drive problem because there was no hard drive!

Oh, how the Times tech guys relished that. "A front page story sent in with a Model 100!" said Hanseroth.

I know there are plenty of other TRS-80 stories out there, in this, one of the most wired cities in the country.

You're welcome to send them to me. Today's kids, they gotta find out their geek history, how it used to be, in those ancient days of 8K RAM.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in Northwest Life. He can be reached at

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