Back in March, the 35th anniversary of a groundbreaking computer came and went with, as far as I know, zero fanfare. That machine is RadioShack’s TRS-80 Model 100, the first popular laptop computer.
Back in the early 1980s, it was standard industry practice for new PCs to be demonstrated at the monthly meetings of the Boston Computer Society, and on April 27, 1983, Radio Shack’s John Shirley showed off the Model 100 and another new system, the desktop-bound Model 4, to BCS members. Though I was a member at the time, I’m not sure if I attended this demo. Fortunately, BCS member Glenn Koenig videotaped the entire thing, and though the results are a bit shaky and murky, they’re still priceless history.
The Model 100 wasn’t the first laptop—Epson’s HX-20, a clear forerunner, even had a built-in printer—but it put together all the pieces in a way that made it irresistible, especially to journalists and other writers. The hardware (designed by Japan’s Kyocera) fit in a briefcase, sported a comfier keyboard than most 2018 laptops, ran for 20 hours on AA batteries, and had a built-in modem for connecting to online networks. Beyond the portability factor, the Model 100 boasted unusually approachable software—a word processor, an address book, and more—making it instantly useful out of the box in a way that most PCs were not.
That software was not only provided by Microsoft but written in great degree by Bill Gates, who later called the Model 100 “in a sense my favorite machine,” and who left his coding days behind once the project was finished. (He also lured Shirley away from Radio Shack and appointed him as Microsoft’s president.) RadioShack sold millions of the Model 100 and two successors, the 102 and 200; even in the early 1990s, when I got into tech journalism and portable computing had progressed a lot, there were people out there who refused to give them up.
One other thing: Like other TRS-80 variants, the TRS-80 was afflicted with the nickname “Trash-80,” a moniker so sticky that it’s difficult to bring the system up without someone reflexively spouting the term back at you. Don’t do that.