Raised by Radio Shack

Jeff Reifman writes a lovely memoir of being raised by his local Radio Shack outlets:
Beginning at age 11, I spent a lot of time hanging out at two different Radio Shack stores. There, I discovered Leo Christopherson's Dancing Demon and his later gems Duel-n-Droids and Voyage of the Valkyrie. I used to live for each year's Radio Shack computer catalog.

Eventually, I parlayed $600 in horse race winnings (my Dad picked and placed a good exacta bet for me at Hollywood Park) and about $600 in sales from my entire baseball card collection to upgrade my computer to have a 5 1/4" floppy drive. Yes, $1200 for an internal floppy drive.

At one point, a Radio Shack manager paid me $10/hr (a fortune) to manually re-type the entire contents of private investigator Gavin De Becker's client database. He set up two Model II computers side by side and I manually moved his entire database from (I think) Profile Plus to (I think) DBase. Basically, it was a catalog of all the psychos tracking his clients such as President Reagan (prior to his election) as well as a lot of code names, e.g. I think Reagan's was Pigskin.

Another fellow traveler hanging out at Chuck's store was the child star, Josh Milrad, from Beastmaster. I was impressed with his filmography but couldn't take him seriously because he had a Color Computer. I took assembly language classes at Radio Shack and later earned first place in my age category in 80 Micro's Young Programmer's Contest. Radio Shack and its salespeople launched my computing career.

Me too. I wasn't a TRS-80 guy, but everything else came from the Shack. I still have a battery club-card somewhere from my early DC motor experiments, which went through D-cells like crazy.

Raised, in part, by Radio Shack (Thanks, Jeff!)

(Image: Science Fair 160 in ONE Electronic Project Kit, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mightyohm's photostream)


  1. Wow, that takes me back; I had the exact kit in the photo – I received it as a Christmas present when I was about eleven (a long time ago now ;)). Between that, my ZX Spectrum, and LEGO Technic, a lifetime of geekhood was pretty much assured, I guess.

    Not featured in the photo is a small chip packed with NAND gates and another with J/K flip-flop gates on the right hand side of the board; enough to teach someone a few things about boolean logic.

    I recently picked up another kit at a charity store for nostalgia’s sake, and was surprised at how flexible and powerful the things are – I built a primitive theremin and monosynth amongst other things.

  2. I look down on anyone that *didn’t* have a CoCo. Now, if they had, say a Tandy 6000, or QT-20 or something, that’s impressive, but any poor soul that got brought up on Apple IIs, VIC-20s, TI-99/4As (unless they did assembly), etc. I kind of pity.
    Anyone that only had access to M$ BASIC in ROM lost out. OS-9 was so incredible, and the 6809 was *far* better than 6502s and Z80s.

  3. Those were the good ole days. Now, if it’s not a question about a cellphone, the guys at radio shack have no idea.

    Me: You guys got any quad op amps?
    Him: …Uh… if you don’t see it we don’t have it.

  4. Ah, I grew up on the 160-in-One kit, though I used my so frequently that I wore out the wires and had to cobble together new ones. The TRS-80 was my first exposure to computers, and I learned BASIC on one, before graduating to the Commodore Pet and finally my very own Sinclair ZX-81.

  5. There were four words that always got me excited in the 1980’s and 1990’s: “Where is as is”. I bought more stuff at 10 cents-on-the-dollar than I ever should have.

    And a line to really impress the ladies: “I bought a Model 100 that I now use to run the X-10 system in my house.”

    1. Well I’m a lady and I’m impressed. ;D hubba hubba

      After all, that was the writer’s machine, right? 3-line display?

      Seriously, I always wanted one of these kits, and my local stores wouldn’t let you play with anything other than ‘toys’ or maybe a minute with a computer or synth.

      I’ve never seen one in a thrift store either, more’s the pity. Missed opportunities are the pits.

  6. wow yes I had one of those as well and I would spend hours in the store playing with a MOOG(SP)? I think it was wow I wanted one so bad but it was $399 or something you could change the wave shape and all sort of stuff the best thing was no one tried to kick me out just let me play with it I did buy a lot of batteries and LEDs and other stuff

  7. Club100 is full of people who are still using and adapting their Radio Shack computers. I recently acquired a NADSBox from them which lets me save files from my 1990 Tandy WP2 Word Processor onto a flash drive — which allows me transfer text files onto my real (i.e. post 2005) computers. Great fun!

  8. I had one of those 160-in-one electronics kits too as a kid, and they were fun, but I don’t know that I ever really learned anything, that is, nothing really stuck. I still dabble in electronics (wiring guitar electronics), but I still don’t understand HOW resistors and capacitors and such actually DO what they do.

  9. Ditto RS customer. In 1976 I bought parts for my first computer, a KIM-1 at RS. I still shop there for small parts because sometimes I’d rather pay $1 for a resistor than pay $0.01 and wait 21 days for it to come from Shenzhen. The prototype for my last Make Magazine project was based entirely on RS parts except for 2 ICs. I hope this place survives, or impulsive DIY hackery will suddenly get a lot less interesting.

  10. My heart skipped a bit when I saw that picture. I had both that kit, and the one below it, the 100 in One kit. There was nothing I loved more as a kid than getting up early on a Saturday morning, putting on Looney Tunes, and building all kinds of madness.

    I need to find one for my kids. I think it’s time to hit the thrift shops.

    Thanks for the trip down nostalgia lane.

    1. I bought a very similar kit for my nephew from either MCM Electronics or All Electronics. Can’t remember which. It was pretty spiffy! Look around, they still make electronics experimenter kits. They cost more than they did back then but as a percent of income it’s hilariously cheap compared to the saved up lunch money I had at 11.

      1. dculbertson, I’d love to know of a similar kit to the RS version I had growing up, do you have a link you could share? I promise to give you one free ‘Shack battery of your choice a month for one full year.

  11. Very first computer was a TRS-80. I remember playing some sort of impossibly archaic flight simulator on it.

    Can you still get kits like that, somewhere? I could see my nephews being into that.

  12. I had the 160-in-one also. My favorite was the one that zapped you when you held both wires (but they warned you that would destroy the relay..). I love the fact that it’s framed with WOOD.

  13. i was pretty excited when i bought the “goofy light kit” radio shack science fair project #28-130.


    and then i felt gipped when i realized it had nothing to do with mickey mouse and everything to do with being too frustratingly difficult for me to comprehend.

  14. Thank you for that picture! Really brought me back.

    And reminded me of handing metal things to my sister saying “could you hold this for me?” and time and again she would take them, despite the fact there were wires coming off them.

  15. Yup, I grew up on Radio Shack computers, starting with a Model III all the way to a tandy 1000. Granted, it helped that my dad *worked* at Tandy Corp for seven to nine years (I forget exactly how long.) Even better, for awhile he was in the educational software dept, so I got to playtest Rocky’s Boots, and other software that they were considering selling on the color computer. I also got a lot of cast offs, such as the Space Quest III disks I still own to this day. I loved the electronics kits and the idea that Radio Shack was a hobby store, not a consumer electronics store. Can’t walk into one today with out sniffling a little bit at how small the parts section of the store is compared to the retail electronics section.

    I remember the saturday mornings spent wandering around Tandy Center tower 1 too… It’s a shame that the old subway is gone now.

  16. A few high-school friends and I would spend our Saturdays at the local mall, on the Model IIIs and shiny new Model 4s. The store staff was OK with it, as long as we got out of the way when they were trying to make a sale… or stayed and helped answer questions, whichever the situation called for. With occasional trips down to the arcade or the chocolate chip cookie place, it made for a great afternoon.

    Mentions of the battery club bring back memories… red (carbon) batteries, Flavoradios, and occasionally, a coupon for a free “battery killer” cheap 5-cell or lantern flashlight.

  17. I also got my start with those same spring terminals. When I decided to make up for lost time a few years ago, and finally learn to do digital logic from scratch, it was so disappointing to see how few actual components they stock these days. Radio Shack is very much a shell of its former self.

  18. Radio Shack of the past is an amazing thing. I had the same kit in the photo, and remember it being awesome. I never red comics as a kid, but getting the Radio Shack advertising circular was like a birthday present every week. I’d read it over to cover and try to figure out what all the components were for and what I could do with them.

    That was the past.

    Now the components and kits area of Radio Shack are shoved in the back so they can sell more cell phones and batteries. Their selection has dwindled. They don’t even sell magnet wire any more, and it took me going to three stores before I found an employee who even understood what I was looking for. (At the other stores I was shown magnets, and wire, separately.) No one ever asks me if I need any help when I’m back looking at components because no one has any idea of what they are. A man came in, asked the staff to help him choose a soldering iron, and the staff spend fifteen minutes reading the back of the boxes. The last time I bought a few LEDs and resistors the woman at the register said “We don’t offer returns on this kind of stuff” with obvious contempt. “This kind of stuff”?!? This kind of stuff is what made Radio Shack!

    I hate going in there now. It crushes those great inspirational memories from my childhood.

    1. Agree that Radio Shack is sort of sad now when it comes to buying components, but it is still the only place I can go in person and have some reasonable chance of buying that particular resistor that I need for a project today. As reduced as they are, they still have some components, perfboards, and project boxes; overpriced, yes, but I don’t have to wait for shipping. I hope they don’t lose that completely (though I wouldn’t be surprised).

  19. Radio Shack Kits re:Goofy light

    Be sure to see:

    My 100 in One from 1970 or so, and later my 160 in One, kept me occupied throughout my childhood; however I have a great fondness with their P-Box kits of the 70s; I bought as many as I could. The Goofy Light was special because it did something unique (to me) – boosting low voltage to high, enough to light a neon bulb and get quite a shock; a primitive inverter. I actually heard Police and Aircraft on their Police Radio kit, and built many of their VOMs back when the size of the analog meter was the cool factor as well as the sensitivity.

  20. My love of electronics and science was fostered by my parents (who read everything to me), PBS, and Radio Shacks’s Forrest Mims III books, springy electronic kits, and the long forgotten Aeronautical Lab Kit. Radio Shacks books and kits allowed me to make some neat projects, explore the world and get into the kind of trouble that seed excusable because it was supported by a manual and a kit.

  21. Fry’s seems pretty good for components, though I admit my exposure to US electronics stores is limited to one single example, the Austin Fry’s. What’s better, in general: Fry’s or Radio Shack?

    Does the US have anything like Maplin or Radio Spares or Farnell?

  22. omg I died for those RS catalogs. Forrest Mimms was my god! teaching me electrical engineering as a fifth grader. Old school RS was the bomb, no way around it.

  23. I had a 65 in One kit when I was a kid, I guess the cheaper version of the 160 in 1? (I think that’s what the number was)

    My father worked for Tandy as well, a traveling sales rep. They put me and my siblings (at least partially) through college.

    He even brought home a Model II when they came out so I could play on it; it went to college with me. When my dot matrix printer died one day before a paper was due I took my 8″ floppy to his office and his secretary printed it on one of their wicked-fast printers that used the little IBM ball in it.

    I ended up working at the Tandy Center at a little bar called Duffy’s for a couple years; my dad showed up at the bar one afternoon (which was unusual) to tell me his department had just been dissolved in a reorganization. Drinks were on me that day.

  24. Just this morning I used a solderless breadboard from RS that I think I bought in 1975. I went in to the local place (3 miles away) to get another and they’re no longer in stock. But you probably knew that.

  25. In defense of RS, they do have a very extensive website and ship quickly. The brick/mortar division is geared toward phones and consumer products now but they still warehouse and ship a lot of decent parts.

  26. Back then R.S. stocked quite a few of the 7400 series I.C. chips and serveral “thick” books on digital logic (not the later MIMs ‘thin’ workbooks I learn quite a bit about boolean logic. I also had a TRS-80 Model 100, 4, 1000HX and 1000TX and learned several programming languages (circa mid-80s). The Shack is not what it once was.

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