Don’t Forget, RadioShack Helped Make America Love Technology

A person rides by a Radio Shack store on March 4, 2014 in San Francisco, California. RadioShack announced plans to close over 1,000 of its underperforming stores, approximately 20 percent of its retail locations, as part of a restructuring to be more competitive in retail electronics. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A person rides by a Radio Shack store on March 4, 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. RadioShack announced plans to close over 1,000 of its underperforming stores, approximately 20% of its retail locations, as part of a restructuring to be more competitive in retail electronics. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Pioneering electronics retailer RadioShack filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy recently. Last week, the firm announced that it was closing its 1,750 stores. The remaining RadioShack stores will be operated in partnership with Sprint.

In many ways, it is the end of an era because the Fort Worth, Texas-based chain was at the vanguard of the technology revolution. It sold the first electronic calculator, personal computer, and laptop. But, the 94-year-old store’s longevity was marked by more hits and misses than a coherent strategy.

RadioShack was started in Boston in 1921 as a retailer of radio parts for ham radio enthusiasts by Theodore and Milton Deutschmann. Over the years, the store expanded into selling other electronic gear. The store’s products were sold through mail order catalogs, with the first one for high fidelity instruments being issued in 1939. The retailer also opened the nation’s first audio showroom, which sold popular equipment such as phonographs and turntables, in 1947.

RadioShack’s first catalog (www.radioshackcatalogs.com)

But, the Deutschmann brothers were bad businessmen. Their lack of operational expertise coupled with bad credit lending practices brought the firm to near-bankruptcy in 1961. A Texas-based businessman Charles Tandy, who owned a business selling leather goods, bought the struggling chain in 1961 for $300,000. Tandy, who was looking to expand into other hobbyist-related businesses, shifted the retailer’s headquarters to Texas and made major business changes. He cut costs by firing employees, streamlining margins, and establishing a focus on the firm’s inventory of goods by pruning its catalog of goods.

Profits resulted and, as electronic goods became pervasive in the American lifestyle, RadioShack became synonymous with electronics. Admirers referred to the firm as the “McDonalds of electronics,” and the 1970s proved to be a golden era for the retailer. Citizen Band radios became popular and accounted for over 30% of the firm’s revenues. Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, was a fan. So was Netscape founder and renowned venture capitalist Marc Andreesen.

In 1977, the retailer also introduced its first personal computer. Since its inception, the company had used private labeling to brand its products; the first computer was no different. Sales for TRS-80 outpaced those for Apple’s PCs for its first couple of years, partly due to its retail reach (Apple did not have a retail presence back then).

Credit: www.jeremyreimer.com

But, the entry of organizations such as IBM and Dell into the PC market commoditized the device, and RadioShack’s dominance of the personal computer ended. During the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the company latched onto mobiles to power its growth. It invented the walkie-talkie and, subsequently, a slew of other wireless products. But, growth did not last long and the firm shuttered its cell phone manufacturing business in 1993.

Since the turn of this century, the firm has been in a mad scramble to reinvent itself.  The Internet offered possibilities for reinvention but RadioShack did not capitalize on it. Instead, it sat by as the Maker revolution (the modern equivalent of the electronics revolution in the 1960s) passed it by.

RadioShack’s products were innovative, but the store’s real contribution to our lives lay in its retail presence, which helped spread the power and capabilities of electronics to our lives. The personal computer industry received a leg up thanks to RadioShack’s TRS-80. The retailer sold 73 million cell phones in almost two decades. RadioShack products changed our lives for the better.

Here are two RadioShack products that were part of the pioneering brigade of the PC industry.

The TRS 80 in the RadioShack catalog (www.radioshackcatalogs.com)

1. The TRS-80 micro computer

The first personal computer ever built was the MITS Altair 8080 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, it was RadioShack’s TRS 80 that propelled the personal computer industry from hacker domains to mainstream consumers.

Unveiled at a press conference in New York’s Warwick hotel, the Tandy RadioShack 80 (or TRS 80) was the company’s first foray into personal computing. For its initial production run, the company manufactured 3,500 TRS 80s. According to this article, that number was no coincidence; RadioShack had 3,500 store locations in 1977. If the product failed to sell, the company could always reuse the computer in its stores.

The TRS 80 came in two models and at three price points. The cheapest version, which retailed for $199, came without a monitor and was clearly aimed at hobbyists, who could solder its parts together. Another model, which retailed for $399.95, was sold without a monitor. The most expensive model, however, was sold with a 12-inch black and white display, 16 kb memory, and a floppy disk drive and retailed for about $1,647.

Subsequent iterations of the TRS 80 improved upon the original model. In fact, the TRS 80 Model III, launched in 1980, was one of the most successful computers ever built. It sold for $699 and had a 12-inch screen with 64-bit graphics characters, a keyboard, and used a Z-80 CPU. It had a memory bank that could be extended to 48K using increments of 16K.

TRS 80 Model 100

Source: Radioshackcatalogs.com

2. The TRS 80 Model 100

The TRS 80 Model 100 laptop was the first laptop of its kind. Launched in 1983, the TRS 80 Model 100 was marketed as a portable computer. It had a built-in display that could accommodate 8 lines of 40 characters each and was equipped with a word processor and a parallel port to enable printing of documents. The portable computer retailed at $800 in an 8K memory version and $1000 for a 24K memory version. For comparison, you could get 16GB of memory for $67 in 2013.

The computer could run for 20 hours straight on four AA batteries. But, it did not go down well with average consumers who had no use for portable computers back then. However, it became a hit with journalists, who used the device to file stories remotely. RadioShack improved the product in further models. For example, Model 200 had a 16-line-by-40-column display and a memory bank that could go up to 72KB. The last version of RadioShack’s portable computer was the Model 600, which was launched in 1985. RadioShack sold a total of 6 million portable computers over the Model product series lifetime.

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