By Sam McManis
Friday, February 15, 2002
2002 San Francisco Chronicle
Rick Hanson surrounds himself with Tandy TRS-80 Model 100, 102 and 200 laptops. He buys and repairs them and sells them to collectors.
Pleasant Hill -- Get a load of this, you Pentium people. There's this guy in Pleasant Hill who has made a nice little niche and a name for himself in the wired world by almost single-handly keeping alive a dinosaur of a laptop that should be deep in the scrap heap of computer history by now.
He is Rick Hanson, and his vocation -- nay, obsession -- is the Tandy TRS- 80 Model 100 laptop, circa 1983. If you're under 30, ask your parents about this first commercially available laptop, laughably outdated by modern standards. But every great gizmo has to have its Model T, its crude precursor to the state of the art and, strange but true, Radio Shack at one time was the industry leader.
"I had to have one," Hanson recalled. "It was a high-tech fervor. Kids have their fervors today. The TRS-80 was ours. So cool."
You know what? They still are cool, in a winking, retro way. They are hard to find these days, though some companies still use them. Mostly, the Model 100 endures in Hanson's comfortably crowded workshop. He repairs them for the loyal and few still banging away, buys them from people who would otherwise junk them, then sells them to "collectors" pining for the good ol' days of laptop usage.
"I hear it all the time," Hanson said. "People call me and say, 'I had one, then I got rid of it, and I want one back.' "
They obviously want it for the memory -- no, not computer memory, since it was only 8K.
This beauty -- and every newspaper hack over 35 remembers it well -- had no hard drive, but it had a hard shell. You could drop the so-called Trash 80, kick it around, spill scalding coffee on the keyboard, bang it with a closed fist when the journalistic muse wasn't cooperating, and it still would pop back on and do its very basic word processing. Then, you would transmit the content (stories, we called them back then, sonny) at a lightning-quick 300 baud per second. Some dudes named Gates and Allen wrote the program. Oh, and check this out: the laptop ran on four, double-A batteries.
Today, of course, there's about as much call for the Model 100 (and its cousins, the models 102 and 200) as there is for spats. But the Model 100 had a good run, about eight years on the market, before laptops moved on to those that use DOS or Microsoft Windows.
Six million of these 6-pound wonders were sold, and Hanson says that he still hears from police departments, military contractors and academic researchers who still use the thing for rudimentary computer work. In the front hallway of Hanson's home is a box of Model 100s from the Arcon Corp. of Massachusetts waiting for repair. Not far from that are a dozen laptops Hanson is repairing for the Los Angeles Daily News.
Scoff if you must, but there's something comforting in knowing that somebody still is getting use out of the Model 100s.
Certainly, Hanson, 53, is.
He's not one of those geeks obsessed by all things computer, who thinks going out for a byte means a trip to Frys, not TGI Friday's. Rather, Hanson is a geek who has many, disparate obsessions and is constantly forging new career paths.
There is his Model 100 obsession (www.club100.org), and he also is a classic-car buff who proudly shows off his mint condition 1923 T- bucket with a 289 Windsor cam that goes from zero to 60 in six seconds. He makes and sells model hot rods, too, and collects videos of old dragster movies ("Hot Rod Rumble" and "Devil of Wheels," classics of the genre). He and wife, Paula, raise champion Australian cattle dogs. He has been an adjunct computer professor at several Bay Area colleges and is back in school to get a second master's degree so he can teach full time on the college level. He used to play rhythm guitar in a rock band and taught music theory.
"I'm eclectic," Hanson said, smiling proudly and running a hand through his rapidly graying goatee. "I see my life on this time line. And I want to do all I can before my time line runs out."
The time of his life, however, has been as the maven of the Model 100s. He's been featured in publications as varied as Wired and American Heritage magazines.
And although Hanson can regale a listener for hours about the birth of the computer culture in the Bay Area -- he remembers attending a 1978 San Francisco computer show and meeting this little freaky geek, Bill Gates -- he's not one of those multimillionaires who recognized the trend early and cashed in. Actually, Hanson did recognize the trend, but he said he was just never motivated by money.
"I never think back at what I could've had," he said. "I'm not of that mind- set. Quality of life is more important to me. I'm an arts person. I don't fit into that culture. I can't be a business executive. I can't lie to anyone. I'm not a (BS-er)."
Indeed, Hanson is a Contra Costa original. He grew up on Pacheco Boulevard in Martinez, his father a real estate broker, carpenter and developer, his mother a waitress at a truck stop off Highway 4 now long plowed under. He would spend his free time tooling around his expansive backyard in his older brother's 1931 hot rod and occasionally going to the Pacheco Raceway, also long gone. When he was a teenager, his family moved to the Tice Valley neighborhood of Walnut Creek, pre-Rossmoor.
Then came the Vietnam War, and Hanson was such a free spirit that he stayed in school to avoid the draft.
"But I took all these ridiculous courses, like golf and badminton, and I dropped out and immediately became draftable," Hanson said.
He chose to enlist in the Navy as an electronics specialist. That's when his computer acumen took root and sprouted. After being discharged in the early '70s, Hanson dabbled in all sorts of activities while making a living selling real estate. He said he became one of the first Bay Area residents to post an Internet bulletin board (though it wasn't called the Internet back then). Later, after earning an MBA, he became an adjunct professor and in 1983 started Club 100 with buddies in Danville.
"When the club started, it was because we were excited about this new technology," Hanson said. "Now, it's kind of a nostalgia thing. Geeks want to go back to retro computing."
Hanson's visitor asked to hold one of the Model 100s, and the experience was like a bad flashback to days of being a young reporter on the road, banging away on this laptop that showed only eight lines and held only enough memory for four or five stories (or just one, if you worked for the Los Angeles Times). Hanson's visitor cringed when he saw the acoustic couplers, unreliable pieces of rubber in which you placed in the phone handset to transmit to the office. That conjured too many bad memories of filing stories on deadline from airport boarding areas, hoping a blip in the phone connection wouldn't bump you off. But it inevitably did.
Yeah, Hanson has heard those stories from reporters before. He has a comeback ready.
"I don't mind people calling them 'Trash 80s,' " he said, sounding somewhat hurt. "But think about all the stories you wrote on them. You did the same thing you do now back then -- wrote stories and filed them. It worked for you."
And, for Hanson, it still provides some work and lots of memories, if not memory.
The Original Laptop Computer . . . 1983