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The Model T Of Computers

Fall 1998 | Volume 14 |  Issue 2

“WATCH THIS,” SAYS RlCK HANSON. HE STANDS up, holds his laptop in front of him at shoulder level, and lets go. It drops and bangs on the floor of his office, a tidy room in his California home crammed with computers, scanners, printers, fax machines, model-car kits, hot-rod posters, videos, and a small, orderly electronics workbench. The computer bounces and clatters to a rest. Hanson picks it up and switches it on. It is ready to go instantly, without warming up.

“If that was a modern laptop,” he says, “I just lost $5,000.”

It is a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, the world’s first laptop, from all the way back in 1983, and it looks like an oversize calculator with a keyboard. It came with 32 kilobytes of RAM—about a thousandth as much as its typical counterpart today—a 40-character-by-8-line liquid-crystal display, and no disk drive whatever, hard or floppy. Many hand-held calculators are more powerful nowadays, but Rick Hanson is one of several thousand people who still swear by the little machine—and is the founder and head of their informal organization, Club 100.

“In this country, if it’s not brandnew, it’s not worth a damn,” he says. “When people tell me their brand-new computer is obsolete, I ask them, ‘Did you fly here in an airplane? How old was that?’ If I use a laptop that’s not obsolete, I have to wait forever for it to boot; its battery will last three hours instead of sixteen hours like this one; if I drop it, it breaks. Everything about it is too complicated.

“The Model 100 is simple and rugged. Newspapermen loved it—and some still do. If an elephant steps on it, it still works. It runs on four AA batteries. Its plain text is compatible with everything, and it has a built-in modem, so you can file from anywhere. It has been on space shuttles, on U-2 spy planes, on oil rigs.”

Hanson, 49, is a professional Web-site designer, and he actually writes some of the html for his clients on his Model 100 while sitting at the counter at Ann’s Sunshine Cafe, near his home in Pleasant Hill, California. “The genius behind this machine,” he says, “was none other than Bill Gates. The software for it was the last code Gates ever personally wrote himself. He was so far ahead of everybody, even then, that he was inventing the laptop when the personal computer was still a crazy idea. He even gave it a port for connecting to bar-code scanners, for use in manufacturing. That’s how far ahead of the curve he was.

“Gates took it to Radio Shack, and they said, ‘Well, we’ll make a thousand of them, and if we can’t sell them, we’ll just find some use for them.’ But at about $1,000 apiece, it was instantly a big hit. I fell in love with it right away.

“I went to Homebrew, the original computer club, in 1971, after I came out of the service. In 1979, when I went on-line, I realized that people who are on-line always go snobbish. You had to be on CompuServe to be part of the Model 100 community, so I started Club 100 as an outfit that gave support by catalogue, phone, mail, and bulletin board.”

In 1986 the Model 100 was replaced by the 102, which was only superficially different, and a couple of years later a Model 200 came out. By 1989 they were discontinued—ancient history.

Today the remaining users of the Model 100 may number in the tens of thousands. Hanson’s Club 100 has a Model 100 Web site where you can buy and sell the machines (they go for up to $250), order peripherals, and download free software, and it gets about 1,500 visits a day. Its address is www.the-dock.cotn/clublOO.html .

“Newspapermen are still the core users,” he says. He points to a couple of 100s he has cleaned and refurbished so they look new. “This one here I’m fixing up for a reporter in San Diego. That one’s for a medical student, to take notes in the library. They like it because you just turn it on and start writing. Press one key to save what you’ve written. Press three or four to modem to somewhere. For writing and saving and sending, it cannot be beat.”

The number of users is dwindling, but recently the Model 100 has found a second life. Brendan Murphy, a New York financial journalist, has founded an outfit called Computers for Africa dedicated to getting reporters to donate the Model 100s in their attics—typically the first computers they owned—to send to journalists in Mali and Senegal who write their dispatches by longhand and send them in by putting them on a bus.

How long will the Model 100 hold out in the United States? “The secret is that technology changes, but people haven’t advanced,” Hanson says. “This is the Model T of computers. Model T’s last a long time. For me, I can’t see ever getting rid of it.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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