By David Plotnikoff
March 28, 2002
Here is the Web resource for the TRS-80 Model 100 family of computers:
www.club100.org . . . Club 100 is a users' group for owners of the Model 100, 102 and 200. The site features a comprehensive library of free programs and utilities. Club 100 is operated by Rick Hanson of Pleasant Hill, CA, the dean of the Model 100/102/200 preservation movement. In addition to maintaining the site, Hanson reconditions and sells the machines. He also sells manuals and the cable that's necessary to connect the machines to a modern PC.
I wish I could say I found them first, but that distinction goes to my esteemed colleague and deskmate Mike Cassidy. When I came into work the other morning he was even cheerier than usual. Grinning like a thief, as a matter of fact. And when I saw what he had in his hand I had to grin, too.
A Radio Shack TRS-80, Model 100. He'd rescued it from a pile of hardware headed for the great computer graveyard. We stood there for a minute just shaking our heads. It was as if we'd come across some long-extinct sea creature washed up on the beach.
The minute I laid eyes on it, I knew I had to have one of my own. As luck would have it, there was one more in the pile and the IT gods gave me their blessing to take it.
If you were not geeked out back in the digital dark ages of the '70s and '80s, you are probably wondering just what the attraction is. The TRS-80 Model 100 is a primitive implement by today's standards. An inexpensive handheld computer has 300 times as much working memory. The average desktop computer has 500 times the processor power.
But the introduction of the Model 100, the first portable in the TRS-80 line, in 1983 was a milestone of sorts. Earlier attempts to building a portable computer produced machines that weighed in at an arm-numbing 20-60 pounds and were often the size of a sewing machine. So the Model 100 was the first practical portable computer.
Quite naturally, we ink-stained wretches of the newspaper world were among the first on the bandwagon. The Model 100 (and its larger-screened offspring, the 200) were quickly adopted by news organizations and remained in wide use straight through the early '90s. Not to wax melodramatic, but those much-maligned computers (universally referred to as ``Trash 80s'') changed the way we practice our craft.
For the first time, reporters had a computer that could go everywhere they did, from courtrooms to college football games. No more phoning in breaking news to a rewrite desk or faxing in typewritten stories from remote locations. After our first tentative embrace with mobile computing we knew there was no going back.
The Model 100 was the ultimate road warrior's tool of its era. The most critical attribute: It was about as delicate as a bowling ball. The core software included a Microsoft implementation of the BASIC programming language, a text editor and a terminal program for sending files via phone lines. All the system software was permanently burned in ROM (non-erasable, non-programmable read-only memory, sonny) so the machine booted up instantly when you hit the ``on'' switch.
Because all the essential software was in ROM, the Model 100 was effectively idiot-proof. You couldn't delete the important stuff even if you wanted to. It would run for 16 hours on four AA batteries. (With an eight-line black-and-white screen and no graphics, display was not a big power hog). And it had one feature that was genuinely ahead of its time: a built-in 300-baud modem.
I had a theory that appreciation of the Trash 80 is a generational divide of sorts in the news business. And this was easy enough to test last week in the newsroom. I showed the Model 100 to a 30-year-old woman -- someone who's totally clued to all the arcane aspects of the digital world -- and she showed not a hint of recognition. When pressed she guessed that the odd object in my hand was ``a giant calculator.'' Wrong. Thanks for being on our show.
When I showed it to several people who are a tad north of age 35, the reaction was uniform: a groan and then they'd cower and shield their eyes. It was like waving a string of garlic at a vampire. Just one look and all the repressed memories of struggling on deadline with the Model 100's very non-intuitive text editor came flooding back.
I was one of the writers who avoided using Trash 80s except under extreme duress or deadline pressure. Though I never had one crash or freeze on me, the Model 100 was notorious for having all the computing power of a gnat. And with no hard drive, all files had to be stored in the machine's 24-32K of RAM. (That's not a typo -- 24 kilobytes, not megabytes.) After about 12 pages of text, the machine would slow down to an agonizing crawl. When it came time to send files back to the home office sometimes I would have to start throwing parts of the story away in order to free up enough memory to transmit. As one of my editors pointed out, it had a way of taking the fat off my prose in a hurry.
Sending a file was an adventure in its own right. In the early days rather than just plugging a phone jack into the machine you'd dial the modem number, listen for the mating call and (I am not making this up) jam the handset into a pair of rubber acoustic couplers, praying that none of the bytes leaked out.
The quintessential Trash 80 experience was sending a file in a dark phone booth, balancing the computer on your knee while dialing the phone, reading the TRS-80 instruction sheet, keying in the send commands and slamming the receiver into the rubber cups. Yes, as a matter of fact it did take three hands. We were more resourceful back in the old days.
Today, the Trash 80 line has been elevated to near-iconic status by a legion of diehard fans. A Google search for ``TRS-80'' returns 32,800 Web pages. The price for a trip back to the days of the command-line interface is not prohibitive. The Model 100, which originally sold for $800, can now be found at garage sales for about $10. Units in good condition with cables and documentation routinely fetch $20 to $60 on eBay.
It's more than a nostalgia trip for some of the Model 100's most ardent fans. They claim -- and who am I to doubt them? -- that their machines are still used regularly for a variety of tasks. For the record, it's possible to move plain ASCII text files between the Model 100 and any computer running DOS if you have the right null cable (RS-232 on the Model 100 end and serial port on the PC side).
There are several shareware utilities available on the Web that make transfers relatively easy. And if you want to go seriously medieval, the machine can run homebrewed BASIC routines, provided you know how to install the programs in RAM as runnable code.
I wanted the Model 100 purely as an artifact that was significant to both computing history and journalism. But once I got it home I couldn't shake the idea that I should try to file one last column to the Mercury News using the antique set-up. I'm pleased to report everything went off flawlessly and you're reading the result.
Somewhere -- most likely on 5.25-inch floppy discs that haven't been loaded since the Carter administration -- I have some routines I wrote in BASIC. Theoretically, I could port them over to the Model 100. But what would that prove?
Knowing that the old Model T could still run, that is enough for me.
David Plotnikoff uses only state-of-the-art implements at the Mercury News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5867.
The Original Laptop Computer . . . 1983