Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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The controversial birth of the TRS-80

by Evan Koblentz

Just a few months separated the 1977 microcomputer launches of the Apple II, Commodore Pet, and Tandy TRS-80. Together, these are the machines that transformed hobbyist computing into personal computing. Many people believe the TRS-80 is the most historically significant, since Tandy was the best-known company at the time. Credit for its invention is traditionally given to Don French and Steve Leininger.

Ray Holt says that's not entirely true. He says Leininger's team reverse-engineered his prototype and never admitted it.

Holt became known in 1998 when The Wall Street Journal reported on his 1969 work on the microprocessor, which took decades to become declassified by the U.S. Air Force. But his team used six chips, leading many experts and Intel in particular to dispute that the invention was a microprocessor at all. Three other engineers from different companies also stepped forward with claims of building the first microprocessor. Holt's assertion, though contentious, gave him a name in computing history. [See]

Back to Tandy: the official story, widely known and confirmed this week in our interviews with French and Leininger, is that Tandy began considering a microcomputer in early 1976 before the West Coast Computer Faire. "We showed Tandy the wire wrap version in August of '76.... the physical hardware design of the board was Steve's. But what it did, how it worked, what was going to be in the language, those were all my things," French said.

Leininger, a self-proclaimed "troll" in the famous Homebrew Computer Club, was hired away from National Semiconductor to make French's ideas into reality. The duo said they showed a prototype to Charles Tandy in summer 1976, and August 3, 1977 was the launch day.

Holt, also in interviews with us this week, said that sometime between mid-1976 and early-1977 - he doesn't remember when exactly - his company, Microcomputer Associates, was asked to build a prototype microcomputer for Tandy. He and partner Manny Lemas accepted the proposal, already having experience from developing the Jolt ( hobbyist computer in 1975. There were three other companies competing for the project, he said.

"We had licensed Basic from Microsoft and already had it working on the Jolt. After much discussion Manny and I decided to build our prototype as a complete desktop unit. Computer, keyboard, and monitor all in one case. We also thought it would be a good idea to have the computer start-up to BASIC. We built a mock-up case with everything inside the monitor box and the keyboard separate," he stated.

"Once we showed Steve the working unit, then it was like his eyes lit up," he added. Holt said he doesn't remember French, but "We went up and talked face to face with [Tandy president] Lew Kornfeld for about an hour. They were talking about us producing 10,000 units."

Holt and Lemas say they agreed to let Tandy keep the prototype for a short period, and then called to inquire when it wasn't promptly returned. Eventually they contacted Kornfeld, who according to Holt, "swore at [Lemas] and said that we were just two young business people that didn't know anything... that it was our problem that we left the prototype."

A month later, the prototype arrived, Holt said. "I took a look at the logic board and was shocked to see what appeared to be a complete disarray of my wiring. Cable harnesses had been cut and just about all of the 'tight' wire-wrap wires had been moved. What was a fairly 'neat' wiring job was now a 'rat's nest'. I never did get it to work again. It was very obvious that Tandy, Radio Shack, Lew, Steve, and others had reversed engineered our prototype. We never did get any of them to call us back or even to respond by letter," he stated.

"Now, there was really NO DOUBT [emphasis, Holt's] in my mind that they stole the design," he concluded.

French and Leininger both deny Holt's story.

French said his influences were the MITS Altair and the Mark-8 minicomputer. "We never talked to any other companies about it," he said. "I never heard of these guys."

"I've never heard of him," Leininger also said of Holt. "I did all of the execution on the thing except for a portion of the power supply. I did everything from scratch."

Who's telling the truth? Frank Durda IV, a former colleague of Leininger's after the Model 1 was launched, said it is possible but unlikely that Tandy acted unethically. "Tandy was pretty stupid at times and would happily screw the inexperienced person or company, but Tandy had lawyers who would know better than to allow really blatant theft to go unchecked," he said. On the other hand, Tandy dug into several Macintosh computers the day after they went on sale, he added.

Holt suggested that former Microcomputer Associates journal editor Darrell Crow and TinyBASIC creator Tom Pittman could back up his claim. We weren't able to reach Crow; Pittman said he has no knowledge about the development of the TRS-80.

Holt, currently living in Oklahoma, said the prototype was lost in a move, and that someday he will search for the Microcomputer Associates records at a California home.