Hello World, Sort of, Part II: Talk Nerdy

In my previous post I talked about my time working on software for Knox and Shelby Counties in Missouri.  That was all historical, and probably not very interesting to anyone besides me.  In this installment I’m going to reminisce about the actual computers.

Knox County bought their computer first, and got a Radio Shack Model 16b running TRS-XENIX.  Shelby County followed, purchasing a Tandy Model 6000 computer, which was nothing more than a rebranded Radio Shack 16b (after all, Tandy owned Radio Shack).  I suspect the rebranding was intended to indicate that the 6000 was a more “upscale” computer, separating it from the TRS-DOS-based Radio Shack computers that were then popular in businesses (at least in my area).

The 16b/6000 was an oddball machine.  It resembled the other Radio Shack computers of the era, with 8″ floppy disc drives and large external hard drive boxes.  Here’s a copy of an original ad for the 16b:

radio-shack-16b

The dual processor architecture mentioned in the advertisement was one of the weird features.  The main processor was a Motorola 68000 running at 8 MHz, with a second Zilog Z80 processor that normally served to manage I/O devices.  I don’t know exactly what that means… that is, what I/O was directly managed by the Z80.  Was it all of it?  Or just some devices?  What I do know is that the 16b could boot TRS-DOS on the Z80, leaving the 68000 offline, or it could boot TRS-XENIX on the 68000 with the Z80 in that subordinate role.

TRS-XENIX was an interesting case.  Both computers I worked with came with the early version, based on AT&T Unix Version 7, and I (rather painfully) upgraded both to the later XENIX 3.0, which was based on AT&T Unix System III.  I don’t even recall what the changes were, but I remember liking the upgrade.

For those not “in the know,” let me boil it down.  AT&T/Bell could not sell software at that time (because of their monopoly status), so the Unix OS could only be bought from someone else who licensed it from AT&T.  No, that doesn’t make sense to me either.  They couldn’t sell it to you or me, but they could sell it to some company for resale.  Anyway, Microsoft licensed Unix from them, but because they couldn’t use the name “Unix” (why?), they called it XENIX.  Microsoft then licensed XENIX to Tandy, which rebranded it TRS-XENIX.  Wikipedia says that Tandy was at that time the largest (in terms of count of units sold) reseller of Unix.  I can believe it.

By the time XENIX 3.0 came out, the copyright headers in a lot of the scripts now included a new player:  SCO, the Santa Cruz Operation.  I see on Wikipedia that SCO and Microsoft worked together to create a XENIX for the Apple Lisa in 1984, and I assume that work fed back into the upgraded Tandy XENIX.

The two computers I worked on each had two remote serial terminals, DT-1 Data Terminals that appear to have been stripped-down early-model TRS-80 computers; they still had bays for floppy drives, for example.  I think Knox County’s computer had a pair of the 15 MB hard drives, while Shelby’s later model had a single 35 MB hard drive; my memory may be a bit faulty on the exact details, but I do know Knox had dual drives.  Both counties had LMP-2150 printers, which were rebranded Printronix printers which had astounding lifespans.  The buttons on the cover (which cover was apparently made for or by Tandy) were membranes, and they tended to break down over time, but the printer engine was bulletproof.  Also very loud.

Possibly the most amazing thing to me now was what these things all cost.  Here are the prices I’ve been able to find for the bits and pieces I remember being installed at Knox (the actual price they paid probably varied).  I’ve added adjusted 2015 prices (the latest year I can find inflation info for).

Item Original Qty 2015 Total
TRS-80 Model 16b $4,999.00 1 $11,995.00
15 MB Hard Drive, each $2,495.00 2 $11,975.00
DT1 Data Terminal, each $699.00 2 $3,355.00
LMP-2150 Printer $3,995.00 1 $9,585.00
2015 Grand Total
$36,910.00

WOW.  And they let 18-year-old ME touch it.  What WERE they thinking?

The 16b probably had half a meg of RAM, and yet it managed to run a fully functional Unix system as well as application software.  (Oh, yeah, I didn’t add in the software price above… no idea how much that would have been.)

Man, that was a long time ago.

One thought on Hello World, Sort of, Part II: Talk Nerdy

  1. I really enjoyed your reminiscence article on the TRS-80 16B! I’m an enthusiast of the big TRS-80 and am a member of the Trash Talkers. We recently released an episode of our podcast TRS-80 Trash Talk where we talk about these machines from inception with the TRS-80 Model II all the way up to the Tandy 6000. Thought you might enjoy that.

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