Remembering the TRS-80
basically my first laptop

A TRS-80, photo from Wikipedia
A TRS-80. Public domain photo from Wikipedia

(Warning: nostalgia herein.)

This story at Boingboing, What it was like to use a TRS-80 Model 100 as a journalist on the go, brings back memories. As a junior reporter on in the early 1990s, I used a similar machine called a Tandy, but it was almost identical. I can tell you a story about it.

Let’s start with a bit of background on technology in local journalism in the early 1990s: it wasn’t very up-to-date.

The post-graduate journalism training course I did at Harlow College in the very early 90s was still taught using typewriters. I had to go to Harlow market and buy myself one. It cost me a tenner, a huge chunk of my monthly budget at the time.

A year later I was working at the Cambridge Evening News, and technology there was still mostly stuck in the 1980s. At least, it was for the reporters, whose job only involved writing and editing of text. The sub editors, whose job involved layout and design, had a bank of the latest, shiniest Apple Macs (probably Performas of some sort).

I was very jealous of the people on the subs desk.

Over on the reporters desk, we used much simpler, less shiny kit.

The software for news production was an old, but reliable system for writing text and moving it from desk to desk. I think it was called “Press 11” but I might be wrong, and I can’t find anything about it on the internet so I probably am.

Instead of a desktop / folders / files visual metaphor, it used a desks / baskets metaphor, continuing the newsroom traditions of old. A reporter wrote a story in a simple text editor (which was, it has to be said, blazing fast once you got the hang of it) and then used function keys to do things with it. Everyone had a “basket” associated with their username. Each story you wrote could be saved in your own basket while still in draft, or sent to someone else’s basket when it was ready for editing.

The side-effect of this was that we had a sort-of rudimentary email system. You could send a private message to someone else in the newsroom by creating a new story, writing your message, and sending it directly to their basket. They could reply by typing more text in the story you’d sent them, or by sending you a story in return. Thus was gossip spread around the newsroom.

Anyway: the TRS-80/Tandy.

There were a handful of these portable devices around. A couple were permanently in the hands of the more senior reporters, but one was set aside for the duty reporter - the person who covered the late shift, and Sundays.

Once I’d been there long enough to be given shifts like this, I was shown how to use the Tandy. The software was even simpler than Press 11, if my memory is correct. The device could store a handful (10 or so?) text files, which you accessed via a function key. It was kept in a briefcase, because it came with a modem. A bleepy-bloopy box of tricks that you attached to a traditional telephone by wrapping flexible rubber cups around each end of the phone’s handset.

So when you were the duty reporter, and you had a story to write but it was 11pm on a Sunday night and you were sitting at home drinking beer with your housemates, you could write it on the TRS-80 and use the modem to email it back to the office, directly to the basket of the news editor who could come in at 7am on Monday morning. (I don’t think it was actual email; rather, I think the modem connected you directly to the Press 11 system, and your typed text was transferred directly to a basket.)

I remember sitting on the bottom step of the house I shared with 3 mates, late on a Sunday night, filing copy about something or other. My housemates were a cynical bunch but I think even they were quite impressed that the humble Cambridge Evening News could manage arrange something as high-tech as this.

The Tandy was hardly cutting edge, but my housemates thought it was pretty cool that I could work at home and file copy over the phone line.

It had a small LCD screen displaying just a few lines of text. You couldn’t see your whole story at once, just a few lines of it. So maybe all that training on typewriters was a good idea after all.

Using it taught me the value of being able to write and file copy from anywhere.

Just a few years later I was at the Press Association, writing about technology. (There’s several other stories to tell about how that happened, but let’s tell them another day.) I was astonished that no similar mobile reporting system seemed to be available, at least not to youngsters like me. If you had to file from outside the office, you had to call a team of copytakers and dictate your pencil-scribbled lines over the phone.

Eventually, an email account was set up for reporters to file text to; but hardly anyone used it, because they didn’t have the means to send email from anywhere. Smartphones were still at least a decade away.

I was determined to find a way to file copy from anywhere, so I went shopping. I bought a Palm III, a fold-up GoType keyboard, and an Ericsson SH-888 mobile phone, which had a built-in modem. Now I could sit down anywhere, plug my Palm into its keyboard, connect the modem to the internet, and send and receive email.

I filed copy from press conferences, from events, from my sofa. I was king of remote working. But: I wasn’t a very good journalist. And that’s another story for another day.

Filed under: computers
(7 November 2019)