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Talking Trash

Like David and Theresa Welsh, I have fond memories of my first computer—not the first I used, but the first I owned. Mine, like theirs, was an original TRS-80 Model I, referred to dismissively by some and affectionately by many of us as the "Trash-80."

Radio Shack released the TRS-80 in August of 1977, and in honor of our first computer's 30th birthday, David and Theresa decided to stop collecting material and get their book out. Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution (www.microcomputerpioneers.com) is a very personal computer history book.

Theresa and David are concerned to assign credit where it's due, and they clearly don't think that Tandy/Radio Shack management ever gave Steve Leininger and Don French the credit they deserved for creating the computer. In their book, Theresa and David do.

And the story they tell of Randy Cook's contributions is not well known, I think. If I knew it, I'd forgotten it.

It was Cook who, working with CTC (later known as "Datapoint"), pushed for getting a single-chip solution for their programmable terminal, a decision that led Intel to develop the 8008 microprocessor that Ed Roberts used in the original Altair. Cook later contracted to do the TRS-DOS operating system for Tandy, although in some circles, he may be better known for the software he developed for the Apollo astronauts or his work on Ethernet at Xerox.

The Welshes tell Cook's story, along with curious details like the false Randy Cook and the Apparat bug-fix copyright suit.

The book is full of memorable details and names familiar to those who lived through the PC revolution, like the reprint of part of a 1981 Popular Computing story on TRS-80 creators by someone named Jonathan Erickson.

One incident that Theresa relates captures in a single detail the fact that it was a community of hobbyists back then, not an industry or a market.

When Tandy was looking for a microprocessor for its planned microcomputer, they flew a team to Silicon Valley to talk to a marketing person at National Semiconductor. He was out, though, and they found themselves getting briefed by a knowledgeable young engineer named Steve Leininger. Later, when they went to Paul Terrell's Byte Shop on El Camino Real to check out how microcomputers were sold, whom did they find behind the counter but Steve Leininger!

I read this book in the same week that I was reading reports about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates reminiscing on stage about the old days. Steve and Bill have their memories, too, of course, but the nostalgia of a billionaire is probably a little less bittersweet than that of a couple from the Midwest who rode the wave of the revolution for a few years, then had to settle back into the drudgery of nine-to-five work for hire.

But I don't want to give the impression that this book is just misty watercolor maunderings. For those of us who got hooked on the software thing at an impressionable age, this is exciting stuff. And Theresa is a fine writer. The story moves along briskly when she's at the keyboard. Dense with facts, its themes expounded smoothly.

Structurally, the book is eccentric, an indulgence that only self-publishing would have allowed. More or less, Theresa tells the story of the microcomputer revolution with a Radio Shack slant, then David covers much of the same ground from his personal perspective, then Theresa does the same from her perspective. It shouldn't work, but there's an innocence and earnestness and honesty in the book that makes you willing to let them tell their story in their way.

And their personal stories are, in fact, interesting if you lived through something comparable. I was working in a microcomputer store in Bloomington, Indiana, repairing hardware and writing software for various models of microcomputers at the same time that David and Theresa were living in Detroit and David was learning the joys of PEEK and POKE and writing accounting software in Level II Basic for his photography business. Not long after that, they were making a nice living selling David's LazyWriter word processor for the TRS-80 and I had moved to Silicon Valley. I have to say, it got to me when, on the next-to-last page of the book, I saw the Apple I of my old computer store boss Ray Borrill. The Welshes correctly report that Ray never made much money selling computers, so it was nice that he made a good profit on that particular machine.

Michael Swaine


[email protected]

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