One of the first computers I ever used was a Radio Shack Color Computer. Or should we say, a TRS-80 Color Computer. But everyone I knew called them Trash-80s. Why?
Trash-80 was a pejorative for Radio Shack’s TRS-80 line of computers. Tandy executives didn’t like the nickname, but most of its competitors had one too.
1980s computer pejoratives
Almost every brand of 1980s computer had a bad nickname. Besides the Trash-80, we also had Commies, Crapples, and Itty Bitty Machines. The only reason Atari didn’t have one was because the name came from a Japanese word and it didn’t lend itself well to an English rhyme. Other companies like Timex and Coleco didn’t get one because they just didn’t last long enough.
In the days before standards, everything other than your preferred brand was either junk or somehow un-American. Today we certainly have our brand preferences, but a PC is a PC is a PC, as far as most people are concerned. It’s possible to have a bad experience with one brand, but that’s usually an isolated thing. They all run the same software and have very similar components inside.
In the 70s and 80s, when less than 1% of the world’s population owned computers, it was only the zealous trailblazers who owned them. Their passionate opinions helped the machines catch on rather than just being a passing fad, but it led to rivalries. And name-calling. Lots of name calling.
But most of us just wore the names. I was a Commodore guy and was fine with other people calling it a Commie. Most Tandy owners didn’t take the Trash-80 name personally and some of them used it too.
What Trash-80 (and TRS-80) meant
TRS-80 referred to Tandy, Radio Shack, and the Zilog Z-80 processor. Tandy was Radio Shack’s parent company. Radio Shack was at the time the country’s largest electronics retailer. In the 70s and 80s, it was just as easy to find a Radio Shack as it was a McDonald’s. They were that prevalent. The Z-80 was the CPU that Tandy chose to use in the first computer they sold at Radio Shack.
Tandy intended for people to pronounce TRS as “triss.” But it didn’t exactly work out that way. Tandy executives really didn’t like the Trash-80 moniker. They were pretty proud of the quality of their computers, and when you hear a Tandy employee talk today, they still have that sense of pride about their machines. While some of the electronics that Radio Shack sold weren’t great quality, their computers were fine. They didn’t take obvious shortcuts in their manufacturing and design. I’m not a big Tandy fan but I’ll tell you their machines didn’t deserve the nickname, except maybe the MC-10, which was intended to compete with super cheap beginner’s computers, so it was designed to a price point. But it was underpowered, not low quality.
Rebranding as Tandy and the end of Trash-80
TRS-80 became a de facto brand of its own, so Tandy continued using it even on systems like its Color Computer, which used a Motorola 6809 CPU. Properly, it should have been a TRS-68. The Model 100 portable, with an 80C85 CPU in it, should have been a TRS-85. And an IBM PC compatible should have been a TRS-88. But the Model 100, Color Computer, and the Tandy 2000 all had TRS-80 badges on them.
But by 1983, the TRS-80 name was showing its weaknesses. The number “80” no longer meant anything, and Tandy executives wanted to rid themselves of the Trash-80 nickname. They started phasing out the TRS-80 badge, replacing it with the name of the parent company. The Tandy 2000 still had a TRS-80 badge on it, but the advertising all called it the Tandy 2000. The very successful Tandy 1000 line, introduced in 1984, shed the TRS-80 badge entirely. It was just the Tandy 1000. The 1986 revision of the Color Computer, the Color Computer 3, also dispensed with the TRS-80 badge. It was simply the Tandy Color Computer 3. Tandy was one of very few companies who profited from the video game crash of 1983, and they had a very good run in the late 1980s.
A few people still called them Trash-80s, but you heard it less and less over time. When I heard people say “Trash-80” in 1991, I knew what they were talking about, but I also knew they’d been around quite a while. They were saying more about themselves at that point than they were about the computers.
By 1993, Tandy wasn’t able to compete with larger, more streamlined operations like Dell. It sold its computer business to AST in May 1993, and started selling other brands of PCs in its stores, ending a 16-year run.