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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 “When people tell me their brand-new computer is obsolete, I ask them, ‘Did you fly here in an airplane?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.

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