This TRS-80

February 2019 — I created this document from a collection of memories of a particular time in my life. It is accurate to the best of my memory, but that does not mean it is complete. Still, I think it’s worth making public because there is almost no similar information on the intarwebs.

If you’re here to read about the TRS-80 Model 100 computer, you will have to slog through a lot of background information and personal anecdotes. I didn’t write this for clicks, or popularity, or recognition. I wrote it for my own edification. And I wrote the text of it on a TRS-80 Model 100.

Introduction

There are many TRS-80’s in the world. But this one is mine.

My TRS-80 Model 100 computer on a table at Starbucks, as I wrote this story.
My TRS-80 Model 100 computer on a table at Starbucks, as I wrote this story.

The TRS-80 Model 100 is claimed by some to be the world’s first portable computer. Whether that is true or not is hard to say. Ninety percent of online journalism these days is nothing more than wannabe reporters summarizing other people’s assumptions from web sites that know how to game a search engine. But looking at old magazines of its era, the Model 100 was at least the first portable computer that wasn’t a glorified calculator, or a suitcase so hefty that you could chock a tire with it to keep a Greyhound bus from rolling away.

This document exists to show that the urban legend about TRS-80's being the devices that ushered journalism into the modern age is true. The Model 100 was a workhorse for a number of journalists, including a cadre of roving correspondents for the Associated Press. And also for me: a cub reporter for a radio station in a medium-sized, unremarkable city.

Background

This was a city not unlike dozens of other river towns across the United States. For me, it wasn’t my first experience as a broadcast journalist, but it was my first full-time, all-on-my-own job hundreds of miles from home. More importantly, it was my first job with a computer.

The conventional wisdom is that the computer revolution came all at once, and from the top down; with big businesses investing in hardware and software to make their employees more productive. But it was a two-pronged offense.

While desktop computers were commonplace in large companies in large office towers in large cities, it took decades for computers to become everyday objects in 90% of America.

The second prong came from that 90%.

Across the country, computers were becoming regular fixtures in ordinary households. Commodore 64’s, TI99/4A’s, Apple ][’s and the like opened up a new world of possibilities for Joe and Jane Lunchbucket, and their children. Online services like CompuServe, QLink, The Source, and Delphi connected people to information and each other in ways that previous generations could only imagine.

It was also unimaginable to many of the people running the companies for which these people worked.

Even as late as the turn of the millennium, it was commonplace for someone to have a computer and online connection at home that was faster and better than what was available in their workplace. Complaints about this upside-down situation put pressure on small and mid-sized companies to land computers on every desk. Firms like Dell, Gateway 2000 and eMachines were happy to churn out millions of low-quality “business" computers to fill this technology gap.

This story starts during the early portion of that gap.

Work before computers

I had a computer at home. It was home-built, which wasn’t unusual for the time. But at work, it was all typewriters and pencils. So many pencils. I often wondered if it would make sense for all the reporters to put their pencils in a big communal bucket and have the interns sharpen them at the beginning of each work day.

In addition to pencils, the primary tools of the reporter’s trade were reporter notepads. These are special spiral-bound pads of lined paper that are unusually narrow and unusually long. They are the perfect size for stuffing into the inside pocket of a suit jacket or the outside pocket of a trench coat. Each big story got its own pad, and you’d build up a library of pads as an archive you could reference.

Reporter pads were more than utilitarian. They helped define the local journalism hierarchy. Interns and reporters for alternative rags carried steno pads. Real journalists had real reporter notepads from real journalism supply companies.

But there was another level in the notepad caste system. If you were lucky enough to be in the presence of a network correspondent, or someone working for one of the broadsheet institutions, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of their special reporter notepads. These looked like the regular notepads that plebs like myself used. But their companies were so professional, and so focused on making sure their people had everything they needed to do a good job that the notepads had the company logos stamped on the cover. It was like bird watching for news nerds. A big black CBS eye here. An academic maroon AP logo there. A corporate blue UPI logo could be spied if you were very lucky.

Just as important as paper were the pencils a reporter carried. Pens were right out. If a pen dries up, explodes in your pocket, or otherwise refuses to cooperate, you’re screwed. A pencil’s point might break, but you could pop into any random office building and ask the first secretary you came across to use her sharpener. Plus, you always carried a fistful of spares. In the worst case scenario, you could use a random sharp implement to expose enough lead to scratch with. We all envisioned a story that was so important we’d have to gnaw the wood off the end of a pencil just to make sure we didn’t miss that career-making quote.

Teletype paper from 1983
Teletype paper was never meant to last more than a few hours or days. This is from 1983.

In the radio newsroom, an intermittent tide of information came in on an Associated Press teletype machine. It was something that looked like it belonged on the deck of a battleship spewing hot lead at airborne foes. Two or three times a day someone would search through the ribbon of paper it spit onto the floor, rip each story from the spool, and file the stories into wire baskets labeled “Local,” “State,” and “National.” There was also a “Save” bin way off to the side where people could collect copies of important news alerts and bulletins for posterity or their own personal collections. International news went into the trash bins. That’s what we had the national network for.

That’s not to say that we didn’t know what was going on. At that level, all reporters are experts on national issues and foreign affairs. Just ask them. It was a game of one-upmanship that we all played to feed the fantasy that we might get a call from the network to join the big leagues in New York or D.C. Which almost never happened. No matter how much you contributed, you were more likely to squeeze into one of the few desirable slots at Voice of America than to be remembered by the network editors at Black Rock for more than six seconds after your voice left their air.

But while we had pencils and we had paper and we had teletype machines, what we didn’t have were computers.

In school the boys didn’t learn how to type. That was for girls. But since I had a computer at home, I knew my way around a keyboard. You couldn’t get a journalism degree without being able to bang out 40 words per minute on an IBM Selectric. My scores were consistently above 80. My J-school professors thought I was cheating.

When I started my career, my home base was an AM/FM combo in the center of a small market. Since I wasn’t a full-time employee, I was free to work elsewhere. And I did. I would do a day at this station to fill in for someone who was sick, or a week at that station so someone could go on vacation. At the time, it was very unusual for a local radio station to not have news at least once an hour. Automation existed, but the spinning wheels of carts stopped when it was time for news.

Doing news after school and on weekends helped pay for college. To make that happen I got myself on the fill-in sheets of half the radio stations within 200 miles of where I lived. Doing so allowed me to list more than a dozen commercial stations on my resume at a point in my career when my peers were lucky to get a DJ shift at a carrier current college station.

I was bouncing between so many stations that one day I did, regrettably, announce that “KOJ news time is 7:05” on a station that wasn’t KOJ. The good people at K-104 never asked me back, which was a shame. It was the first place I ever considered working full-time. The facilities at K-104 were terrible. But that was because management invested money in the employees instead of the physical plant, and everyone was paid far above what the competition paid. The result was that everyone worked hard, and we were all handsomely rewarded. But after my on-air mistake, I decided it was time to find one job, and stick to it.

When it came time for a career change, I did what all radio people did: I consulted the help wanted listings in a strange industry newsletter that came in every day by fax. Some station managers would tear the want ads off the end of the transmissions. It was a very effective way to keep people from jumping ship in an era when information was still easy to control. But if you were on the morning shift, you came in six hours before sales and management. That gave you an opportunity to photocopy the ads before they were molested by your superiors.

A station in Kokomo, Indiana was first to offer me a position. But there was a catch. I would have to report the news in the morning, and then sell ads for the news in the afternoon. No thanks. That violated everything my journalism degree taught me.

Next up was the previously-mentioned river city. It was full-time, with a large team, in a four-station cluster. It also meant my own computer.

Being nicknamed “Scoop” by your boss is both a cliché and a burden

I skipped my own college graduation to drive down there one snowy December day in a pickup truck with all of my worldly possessions lurching to and fro in the back. The job was in a state that didn’t believe in snow, so the roads were unplowed. My journey ended when I hit a snow bank, disgorged half of my stuff onto the street, and slid through a red light into the radio station’s parking lot. A grand entrance to my new life.

After a few weeks of meeting the local politicians, researching local history, driving the signal (going to the fringes of each station’s coverage to understand where the listeners really are), I was set free to report on... not much, really.

Ribbon-cuttings, local school board meetings, and assorted homicides made up the bulk of my reportage. Also, a disturbingly high number of arrests for incest. I wasn’t mad about this kind of unglamorous reporting. It’s the “local” in local news, and the reason radio was created. Newspapers, too. Television... was look upon skeptically. Whenever one of the TV reporters would show up at a scene, he or she would be ridiculed by the rest of us with unimaginative taunts like, “Nice of you to show up.” Those reporters suffered for the state of the rest of their industry.

Working late, as I often did to cover actual local news like city council meetings, I got to know some of the lonelier low-level politicians well enough to be trusted with morsels of non-public information. Those tidbits could be pieced together with my own research to form actual interesting stories. Pretty soon my words and voice were being carried by the likes of ABC Radio News, UPI, and the AP.

A capitol idea

One day my boss decided that I should be the capitol reporter for a regional radio news network. I’m not sure that I was the best person for the position. Just days earlier I’d completely botched live coverage of a primary election so badly that nobody listening could possibly have known the results. But at this point in my life, I rarely said no to opportunities.

I was given a key to a side door of the state capitol building, escorted to my office, and left there to figure out everything else on my own.

This was in the days when government was still open and responsive to the people. Ordinary citizens were allowed to roam around public buildings. Old ladies would go to courthouses to watch trials just for entertainment. Some did it every day, as a hobby, and you could hear the gentle tick-ticking of their knitting needles under the testimony.

People could even walk into an elementary school and poke around to see their tax dollars at work. This was before “stranger danger” hysteria gripped mothers across the nation.

School security? Metal detectors in public buildings? Those were the sorts of thing for which we made fun of the Soviet Union. This was the U.S. of A., where free people were free to walk into pretty much any non-military government building and take a look around, because those buildings are the property of the people. America is notably different now. I still remember the day I saw my first metal detector at a courthouse. Nobody knew what to do, and the line stretched out the door and along the marble colonnade.

Enter the 100

The capitol newsroom where I was stationed was a space beneath the governor’s office about the size of a standard Marriott suite, with desks around its perimeter separated by rough plywood.

Clearly at one time this was an important hub of activity. But now, it was a sad space. Most of the cubicles were vacant. Some were thick with dust. Others were turned into storage for unwanted archives of stacked papers, thick reference books, and equipment from an era before microchips. Some cubicles still bore the faded logos of prominent news agencies hanging above them. But these were organizations that were no longer interested in -- or financially capable of -- keeping an eye on this corner of the world.

A few desks were still alive and occupied. The Associated Press had an outpost. The UPI desk was clean and tidy, but I never saw anyone there. The regional newspapers were represented. And the state public radio network had a presence large enough that it spilled over into the cubbies of news agencies that were unknown to me.

My place was right next to the door where everyone could look at me sideways in all of my pit-dampening nervousness.

Clearly my company hadn’t staffed this position in a very long time. Shoving some Blue Books and reverse directories aside, I took stock of what I’d inherited from some long-forgotten capitol correspondent: An old shotgun microphone wrapped in a desiccated pop filter, a desk microphone hooked into a Marti microwave link, and a TRS-80 Model 100. Jackpot.

A bundle of teletype pages with the computer explained why the AP used these machines.

The Associated Press has three different models of Tandy portable computer terminals: The M-100, M-102 and, M-200. All of them are small but powerful word processors which are used by staffers around the world to write, edit and transmit news copy. These so-called ``laptop’’ computers are as sophisticated as any of the terminals in operation at AP bureaus and also as simple to use.

Because these four-pound computers can run on batteries, it is possible to write a story in almost any situation and then send it from a phone booth! Also, they can interact with the AP bureau computers, so stories can be retrieved.

The introductory portion of the document ended with exactly the kind of encouragement I needed:

In our business it is sometimes necessary to work ``on-the-fly’’ on new and unfamiliar equipment, without the benefit of thorough training. If you find yourself in such a situation, having been just handed one of these computers, read the next section. Then, when you can spend at least 30 minutes going over this guide, please do so. You will save yourself much grief.

It concluded with a tag line I’ve seen so often it’s like the “XOXO” at the end of a birthday card sent by my own grandmother.

END
AP-NY-06-23-83 1406EST<

To someone who’d only reported using a typewriter, a fist full of Dixon Ticonderogas, and a beat-up Marantz tape machine, this was Eldorado. I picked up the computer and anything else that looked related and scurried up the hill to my apartment in the basement of a convenience store to see what I’d been left.

I gave the computer a good cleaning and blasted the keyboard with canned air. It smelled like cigarettes, but so did the rest of the capitol. Sniffing the microphone was a bad idea because it reeked of beer and sadness.

At the time, alcohol consumption in journalism wasn’t a problem; it was a solution. If a reporter had booze in his desk drawer, it was overlooked by management. And if it became known that a reporter kept the good stuff in his filing cabinet, his desk would become increasingly popular with the rest of the staff as deadlines approached.

Beer was the universal lubricant. Reporters generally didn’t drink beer on the job. But they did buy beer for politicians, businessmen, hookers, janitors, or anyone else with a yarn to spin about themselves or someone else.

After carefully sorting through the things I understood, it was time to inventory the things I didn’t. One TRS-80 Model 100. One time-worn hand-held microphone. One stinky shotgun microphone. One beat-up Marantz. One set of acoustic couplers. Assorted booklets and long ribbons of teletype paper.

Having a long interest in computers, the Model 100 was the first thing I looked at. It came with Radio Shack instruction manuals, and rip-n-read from the Associated Press. My heart leapt at the possibility that this booty was in my cubicle because I was expected to file reports for the wire service.

I was too poor to have a telephone installed in my subterranean home, so I bleeped my boss on the HF radio that we all carried. I explained the computer and asked excitedly, was I supposed to file stories for the AP?

The answer crackled back: No. The AP was merely the transmission method for getting my stories from the Model 100 back into the AP computer in the office. I should have been more disappointed, but I was fascinated to learn how this was accomplished.

A battery-powered buddy

That would have to wait. Political season was over, and I returned to my regular reporting duties for a while. The 100 was my co-pilot through it all. It went with me up the stairs into city hall to grill the local pols caught with their hands in the kitty, and down into forest barrows to pester detectives hovering over the freshly deceased.

After a while, I developed a routine. Go to place where there was news. Take notes and gather sound. Drive to a place where there was cell service. Phone in a few facts from a giant Motorola AMPS bag phone for the anchors to use. Write my story on my TRS-80. Phone in a live report. Drive back to the newsroom. Put together three versions of a proper story with sound. Repeat.

The Model 100 proved to be a reliable companion. It’s supposed to run for a week or so on a set of AA batteries. I don’t remember if I got that kind of performance out of it, but I do remember never worrying about running low on juice the way I do with my modern laptops.

The only place I couldn’t use the 100 was in City Hall. The keyboard was too clackety-clack to take notes in that kind of environment. I did it during one meeting and the mayor put a private word in my ear letting me know that the TRS-80 was not welcome.

In the reporter’s bullpen in the basement of the state capitol the Model 100 was right at home. The other reporters worked on big computers and dumb terminals, but I had my little Radio Shack beauty. Maybe to them it looked like a toy. But to me, the fact that the machine had the Associated Press seal of approval was all I needed to know.

I have no idea how the magic happened

Decades later, I don’t understand the exact process for getting my stories from the 100 to the computer back at the radio station newsroom. I have a memory of using the acoustic coupler to fax stories from the 100. But the logical portion of my brain says that’s not possible because fax modems didn’t exist then, and the newsroom didn’t have a fax machine. Only the sales department did, which was a constant sore spot for us newsies.

When I think about it, it’s both tragic and comical to remember that we had a single DOS machine for five or six reporters, plus visitors from sister stations who would use our studios. A couple of people used the computer, but most in our group wrote their stories out on a pair of typewriters that faced through the glass into the main broadcast studio. There were microphones at each typewriter, and at the computer. When the on-air talent tossed to the newsroom for a live report, the journalism factory noises in the background were real. Unlike the recorded teletype sound loop that WINS/New York uses to this day.

The DOS machine in the newsroom ran a news gathering program with a name I don’t remember, but I know it wasn’t the AP’s own software. I used that later in my career.

The machine was hooked up to a satellite receiver in the rack room and ingested stories from the Associated Press in the background while allowing the user to write stories in the foreground. It was also possible to read the AP stories that had arrived within the last 12 hours.

I spent many late nights and early mornings alone in that newsroom, and on those occasions when I needed a change of mental pattern, I tried to understand how the system worked. Eventually I figured out that the data from the rack room came into the newsroom on a single wire that was barely plugged in to a socket in the back of the computer. Pull the wire out, the news feed stops. Push the wire in, the news starts again. With a little snooping in the program’s settings I discovered that this was a standard COM: port.

By then I’d managed to get a phone line at home, and so brought in a terminal program from my home computer. I was familiar with modem protocols because for a couple of years I ran a dialup BBS. Experimenting with the terminal program on the work computer yielded results. The incoming data stream from the satellite was an ordinary ASCII data stream.

I don’t remember if it was 300 baud 8/N/1, or 1200 baud 7/E/0, but it was something common like that, and came in slowly enough to be read in real time. More importantly, using the terminal program opened up a world of new information for me.

The B Team

At the time the Associated Press had two wire services: the “A” wire and the “B” wire. We were licensed for the B wire, which was for broadcast outlets. That meant it included hourly short summaries of the news that were written for broadcast and could be read directly on the air by lazy anchors without rewriting. It also included daily “prep” reports each morning with horoscopes, light entertainment news, and this-day-in-history stuff.

The “A” wire was for newspapers. It included far more news than the B wire, and much of the news was long form newspaper-length pieces with lots of depth. A B wire story might be four or five paragraphs long. The same story on the A wire could be 30 or 40 paragraphs long.

It turns out that the filtering of stories based on your subscription level wasn’t done by the AP at 50 Rock. It wasn’t even done at the satellite receiver. It was done by the news software on the computer. Viewing the data stream with a terminal program meant unfiltered access not only to the B wire that my company paid for, but also the A wire, and the A and B wires for all of the surrounding states.

To a news junkie like me, it was fascinating. I showed a few other people, but nobody seemed to think it was all that special. I fantasized about writing my own wire service software and selling it, but work pressures and my career path didn’t give me the time to do that sort of thing, so it never happened. Today I’m sure that the AP’s services are delivered over the internet in a completely secure manner.

The big question is, of course, how did stories I wrote on the TRS-80 Model 100 in the basement of the state capitol end up in that AT&T 6300 in the newsroom?

The mouse that roared

It starts with Mouse. Mouse is the name of the program that a company called PEAC made for the Associated Press’ Tandy portable computers. Today nobody would name a computer program “Mouse,” but this was created at a time when the desktop-sliding human interface was unknown to most people.

Photograph of the Gamma ROM chip inside the computer.
The Gamma EPROM.

Mouse lives in a custom EPROM chip plugged into the Option ROM socket behind a plastic door on the bottom of the computer. There are two editions of this chip: one for the Model 100 and 102, and SuperMouse for the Model 200. The chip I have has a sticker reading “GAMMA.AP 100 © PEAC” on the window sticker.

I don’t know why the version I have is called Gamma. I have documentation for the previous version which was called Pluto.

An Associated Press memo about the Pluto software
An Associated Press memo about the Pluto software.

When you turn on a Model 100 with one of these chips installed, it looks no different than an ordinary 100. Issuing the command CALL 63012 from the BASIC interpreter activates Mouse and returns the user to the computer’s main menu. The only visible difference is that the available free memory has been reduced. On a Model 200 the command is CALL 61167,2.

Even though it is not visible in the menu, Mouse can be activated by entering its version name in the search bar, followed by the extension AP. For example, PLUTO.AP, or GAMMA.AP. According to the documentation I have, the original version of Mouse was called MOUSE.BA. It appears that this was distributed via download in 1983, and a year later AP started pre-loading the software on PROMs.

Thirty-six-year-old teletype paper with the instructions for the Associated Press TRS-80 Model 100 software.  Sealed for freshness.
Thirty-six-year-old teletype paper with the instructions for the Associated Press TRS-80 Model 100 software. Sealed for freshness.

On a Model 100, running the GAMMA.AP program from the main menu loads a BASIC program called AP.BA into memory and executes it. Reporters using a Model 200 had an extra step. Their computers automatically had the AP.BA program available on the main menu. But when they activated that program they got a question mark prompt where they had to type in “GAMMA” or the correct version name of their software to start the program.

This is the source code for AP.BA:

0 CALLPEEK(63100)+PEEK(63101)*256+31:MENUINKEY$CSNGKEYTHENLEN:LENSPACE$MID$>1!AKCSRLIN%LENKEY2PEEKRIGHT$CSNG>/INT!’’#FKEY/INTxMAXUSING$LEN>RNDINKEY$
1 @
2 @
3 @
4 @
5 @
6 @
7 @
8 @
9 @
10 @
11 KEYOFF:O%=1:G9%=1:CLS:PRINT@40,"WORD COUNT":GOSUB62:PRINT:LINEINPUT" File Name <ENTER>: ";A9$:OPENA9$FORINPUTAS5
12 @
13 @
14 @
15 @
16 @
17 PRINT@240*F1%,;:LINEINPUT"KILL terminal file <ENTER>: ";I9$
18 @
19 @
20 @
21 @
22 @
23 @
24 @
25 @
26 @
27 @
28 DATA7,128,8,154,9,175,31,130,91,136,92,172,93,157,123,174,124,159,125,173,126,176:FORY%=0TO10:READA1%,B1%:K%(A1%)=B1%:L%(B1%)=A1%:NEXTY%:DATA2,0,3,-1,4,-1,25,32,26,32,27,0,29,32,30,32:FORY%=0TO7:READA1%,B1%:K%(A1%)=B1%:NEXTY%
29 DATA2,0,34,96,156,92,158,123,180,125:FORY%=0TO4:READA1%,B1%:L%(A1%)=B1%:NEXTY%
30 @
31 @
32 @
33 @
34 @
35 @
36 @
37 @
38 @
39 @
40 @
41 @
42 @
43 @
44 @
45 @
46 @
47 @
48 @
49 @
50 @
51 @
52 @
53 @
54 @
55 @
56 @
57 @
58 @
59 @
60 @
61 @
62 @
63 @
64 PRINT:LINEINPUT"<ENTER> when ready to connect. ";N$:]
65 @
66 @
67 @
68 @
69 @
70 :@
71 @
72 @
73 IFERL=4THENF1%=1:RESUME5ELSEIFERR=53THENIFERL=44ORERL=57THENCLOSE3:}RESUME
74 @
75 @
76 @
77 @
78 @
79 @
80 LINEINPUT"Enter bureau local phone #: ";D$
81 @
82 @
83 LINEINPUT"Enter bureau area code: ";D$
84 @
85 @
86 @
87 @
88 @
89 @
90 @

When fired up, first thing Mouse does is ask for the phone number of the local AP bureau’s computer. Strangely, it asks for the bureau’s area code second. Both should be entered as digits only. No formatting.

Assocated Press Mouse software startup screen
“Greetings, Professor Falken.” — Joshua

Once an area code and phone number are entered, an AP splash screen is displayed along with information about how many words can be stored in the computer. These machines were not meant to be archives. They were intended for reporters to bang out a story, send it to the bureau editors, and then start fresh on a new story.

On a Model 100 with 29,638 bytes free after a cold boot there will be between 27,418 and 28,489 bytes available once Mouse is activated. That means Mouse uses between 1,149 and 2,200 bytes of memory. I’m not sure why this varies.

When Mouse displays the number of words that reporters can write in the memory space available, it is an estimate, not a hard number. Mouse counts the number of bytes available and divides by seven, assuming that the average word a reporter might use is seven letters long.

A clean system will show about 3,900 words available. Reporters thought in words, not bytes or K or megs or gigs. This is a holdover from when newspapers dominated J schools. 3,900 words doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. If an editor asked you for 500 words on a topic, that meant you were going to deliver a pretty solid print article. Commercial radio reporters thought in seconds rather than words, and would often put fewer than 150 words in a story. Even then, sometimes only 40 would make it to air.

Unlike ENR, AvNews, ENPS, and other desktop-based news programs of the era, Mouse is not a text editor. Stories are expected to be written in the TRS-80’s standard text editor called TEXT. Mouse is for moving completed stories from the Radio Shack machine to the AP.

Documents I have indicate that the Associated Press’ back end system was called ATEX. I don’t know anything about how wire services worked on the back end, but after seeing a few thousand stories come in on the teletype you understood that the gibberish at the top of each report was important coding and routing information.

For example, when the documentation for Mouse was transmitted over the AP wire on the morning of June 24, 1987 the header looked like this:

quick1----- r v ^TANDYPORTABLECOMPUTERPOCKETGUIDE 3Takes   06-24 1027
^TANDY PORTABLE COMPUTER POCKET GUIDE, 3 Takes, 1027<

The 1983 edition was a little longer:

SHACK----- u v ^M-100PORTABLECOMPUTEROPERATINGINDSTURCTIONS     06-23 0942
^M-100 PORTABLE COMPUTER OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS,3942<

These headers are so important for making sure that stories get where they’re going that even the reporters in the field were expected to know how to type them into the top of their TEXT files. From The Associated Press Tandy Portable Computer Pocket Guide Second Edition:

Type the name of the file at the top of the screen and press ENTER to make a new line. Then, create a header with the proper priority, category, and format codes. Leave a space between the priority and category codes. Press enter for a new line, give the story a slug line preceded by an upper rail (to generate an upper-rail, press the shift key located on the left side of the keyboard simultaneously with the numeral 6 key), press ENTER for a new line followed by TAB and start writing the story. This is how it should look:

name
r nbx
^BC-Slug
     NEW YORK (AP) -- This is a new file.

Note the interesting use of the word “upper-rail.” This isn’t a different name for the typographical character we commonly call the “caret.” It’s a reference to the position above the 6 key on the keyboard. The percent sign is the upper-rail of the 5 key. The question mark is the upper-rail of the / key.

Not surprisingly, “upper-rail” is leftover newspaper lingo from the days of mechanical typesetting. In a printing press, lines of text were composed with raised letters carved out of metal blocks. These metal blocks were called “slugs,” which is a bit of slang borrowed from metalworking. It shares a common ancestry with “slug,” as in spent bullet; and “slug” as in fake coin. It is also the reason that the working title for a news story is called a “slug” even in today’s computerized news systems.

When the printing was done and the individual letters returned to their storage places they traveled along rails. The rows of letters then became known as “rails.” When printing became computerized, the language followed.

On an American computer keyboard Caps LockASDFGHJKL;Return is a rail of characters. `1234567890-=Backspace is also a rail. And the rail above that is ~!@#$%^&*()_+Backspace.

While virtually all software written for the TRS-80 used very basic ASCII text, the AP requires a number of special characters. When a story needed to be sent to the AP news system from within AP itself, for reasons unknown to me, it had to include these special characters. A ≠ character had to be placed at the end of the story name, and a ± symbol at the end of the slug line.

On the TRS-80 the ≠ was created by pressing GRPH/ and the ± was created by pressing GRPH=.

Other symbols used by Associated Press staff included:

Name Also known as Model 100 visual symbol Generated by
Tab line indicator Tape feed GRPHL in Mouse or GRPH1 in TELCOM
Tab line end GRPH /
Tab field indicator Vertical rule Telephone icon with an X GRPHF in Mouse or GRPH5 in TELCOM
Mutt M space (today an “em space”) GRPH, in TELCOM only
Nutt N space (today an “en space”) ♥︎ GRPH5 in TELCOM only
Thin space GRPH3 in TELCOM only
¼ \ GRPH-
½ { GRPH9
¾ } GRPH0

With these symbols, a table of information could be sent back to the bureau for further formatting.

→Column1Telephone icon with an XColumn2Telephone icon with an XColumn3≠
→Value 1Telephone icon with an XValue 2Telephone icon with an XValue 3≠
→Value 4Telephone icon with an XValue 5Telephone icon with an XValue 6≠

The reason there are also key combinations listed for TELCOM is that reporters didn’t have to use the AP.BA program to connect to the AP. If they were technically-minded, or desperate because their ROM chip was missing or not working, or wanted to include a table (which Mouse did not allow), TELCOM could make the connection. The tradeoff with using TELCOM instead of Mouse is that the communications parameters must be manually set up by the reporter to 300 baud, 7 bits, ignore parity, 2 stop bits, and flow control off. And then once connected, the reporter must enter all of the special control codes manually. For example, ControlE before and ControlD after Execute commands. Other control codes will have to be entered in the headers of the story being sent. Another inconvenience is that using TELCOM there is no guarantee that the AP computer will tell you the name it used to store your story, so finding it again later can be problematic.

In the realm of computers, quotation marks and apostrophes are messy things. Even today, programmers struggle to get quotation marks right, and a single misplaced apostrophe can halt a web site before it even begins. While computers ended up using the generic double-quote symbol " for both opening and closing quotation marks, in printing quotation marks are expected to be two different characters. To get around this, reporters were instructed to use two grave marks to open quotes, and two apostrophes to close quotes:

For example: ``When we talk to God it’s called prayer. When God talks to us it’s called crazy.' '

As bad as that looks on a modern digital screen, it was absolutely jarring to see coming out of a teletype. You may notice that there is no ` symbol on the Model 100 keyboard. This was created by pressing GRPH[.

The Associated Press Pocket Guide
The AP Pocket Guide. Never leave a Model 100 without it. For some reason I have three.

The AP Pocket Guide contains brief tutorials on using the Model 100’s built-in TEXT, SCHEDL, and ADDRSS programs, and even the Tandy Disk-Video Interface, which was provided to important correspondents in interesting, yet stable, locations. The Associated Press actually did a better job of explaining things than Radio Shack’s own thick manual. The vintage of the booklet can be derived from the fact that all of its examples use the name of a famous jellybean-scarfing politician.

The word or string of text being searched for is typed in immediately following the colon. Example:
String:Reagan

After a story was written, and hopefully the headers were all correct, it was time to send the text to the AP over an ordinary telephone line.

F7 is labeled MOUSE, and readies the machine to dial the AP computers. It asks if you want to use manual or automatic dialing. Once you press m for manual dialing, the next step was to dial your local bureau’s access number on your phone and attached the telephone receiver to the acoustic couplers. Mouse then asks you to "<ENTER> when ready to connect."

In early versions of the Mouse program, you could enter the call sign of the AP bureau to which you wanted to connect. FX, for example, was San Francisco. My versions of Mouse never had that feature; you always had to enter the number yourself. I suspect this feature was removed to save memory and provide more space for writing.

I also suspect that the terminology “call sign” and the actual call signs for each bureau are left over from the days when it was common for stories to move across the country and around the globe over shortwave in morse code. These days, shortwave is only used for weather maps (not by the AP), since satellite data is readily available. But every radio station around the world still has a call sign, from WOR/New York to VOCM/St. John’s to 3AW/Melbourne to JODW/Tokyo.

Teletype instructions for operating the AP.BA program
Early versions of Mouse allowed a reporter to enter the call letters of the Associated Press station and it would dial the number automatically.

If you press a for auto-dial, the computer asks what kind of phone number you’re trying to reach. Is it local, long distance, or long distance with an area code. Selecting local will dial the seven digit phone number. Selecting long distance dials a 1 and then the seven digit phone number. Selecting long distance with an area code dials 1 and then the area code and then the seven digit phone number. If you were behind a PBX or in a hotel or someplace where you had to dial 9 for an outside line, better bring your acoustic coupler.

The computer’s built-in modem will then make the happy winking sounds that come from pulse dialing. Touch Tone is not an option. When a connection is made the screen will display “MOUSE LINK.”

TRS-80 Model 100 dialing a phone number
Mouse happily winking out the number of the White House switchboard. There isn’t a journalist in the world who doesn’t know the number.

I tried all of the AP bureau dial-in numbers I have in my files, and none of them work anymore. Disappointingly they don’t even go to wrong numbers within AP, they just end up at line disconnected recordings.

Once a successful connection was made, the reporter’s story is transmitted to AP by pressing F2, which is the function key for Close (abbreviated CLOS on screen). The computer will ask for the TEXT file name and the reporter can watch as the document is transmitted to the bureau system at 300 baud. Agonizingly slow these days, but perfectly sufficient for its purposes. When the transmission was complete, the screen would display “File stored as:” followed by the name the story was automatically assigned by the bureau’s computer system.

Today it seems like a kludge, but all technology looks inelegant 35 years later.

However, it is alarming in hindsight to see that there was no apparent authentication or encryption in the system. Anyone with a home computer, a modem, and the right phone number could just dial into the AP system. At no point did Mouse ever ask for anything even as elementary a username and password. But in my experience, this is par for the course. As late as the 2000’s ABC NewsOne, CBS NewsPath, and CNN Newsource were all so lax about some of their web passwords that they were passed around by news staff and even people at non-affiliates could see what the networks were working on that night.

In addition to sending stories, Mouse can also receive stories.

Pressing F1 while connected will allow the reporter to issue commands to the AP system. A list of available stories can be generated by using the d (directory) command. I never used it, so I’m not sure how it works. The Pocket Guide provides the following examples:

d:a????;reagan (on a Mouse) or
d a????(reagan) (on a SuperMouse).

That doesn’t seem very helpful since the a???? portion is the file name of the story, and the portion after the semicolon appears to be the slug, not a search parameter. So you have to already know the file name and slug of the story you’re interested in seeing. Perhaps this was used as a central repository where reporters could store their own stories and retrieve them later for reference. The directory can be printed by preceding the d command with a p, as in pd:xyzzy;frotz.

To download a story, the o (open) command was used. In the case of a story with the file name “xyzzy” the Mouse command to retrieve the file was o:xyzzy. The story could be printed by preceding the o with a p, as in po:xyzzy.

If you only wanted to read a story on the AP system, and didn’t want to copy it to your system, you could precede the o command with a v for “view.” As in vo:xyzzy.

No slug was required to download a story, but it was wise to enter the command full before retrieving a story, or the whole thing might not come through. This was, perhaps, to cut down on expensive phone connect time. When this program was made, phone calls could cost as much as five bucks a minute in 2018 dollars. Downloading a 500 word story could cost $15 (again in 2018 money).

Reporters who have used AP’s system on other computers and terminals will be right at home with Execute (abbreviated as EXEC on screen), as it’s essentially a terminal emulator without the emulation.

The F3 key (abbreviated WORD on screen) counts the words in a story on the TRS-80. It uses the seven-letter guesstimate mentioned above.

F4 is the Kill function, which allows a reporter to delete a story on his computer.

F5 is Clear Screen (abbreviates CLS on screen), which clears the screen.

F6 shows a directory of stories on on Model 100, or on a floppy disk if the computer is hooked up to a Radio Shack Disk-Video interface.

Mouse was regularly updated by the Associated Press, and new versions could be downloaded from the wire service. There was a dedicated telephone line for these updates. No authentication; just dial and download. The same process could be used to load a copy of the Associated Press’ contacts list into the Model 100’s address book.

An Associated Press memo about an upcoming TRS-80 Model 100 software update
An Associated Press memo about an upcoming TRS-80 Model 100 software update. Don’t get excited, the phone number has been disconnected.

The AP Pocket Guide has some interesting warnings for reporters.

WARNING: NEVER turn off the portable when in the AP.BA program. ALWAYS return to the main MENU before turning off the computer.
WARNING:
The Tandy must have good batteries in place at all times, whether or not it is connected to a wall outlet. If the batteries are allowed to run out completely, all text files may be lost!
Do not be fooled into thinking that because the AC adapter is connected that the low battery indicator light can be ignored.
Replace the four AA batteries two at a time. Never take all four batteries out at the same time because this could erase the memory.

It’s not kidding. Logically, the AP software shouldn’t be any more sensitive to voltage fluctuations than any other piece of software in the 100, but this is what happens when the batteries start to run low:

TRS-80 Model 100 computer with garbled screen
TRS-80 Model 100 computer with garbled screen

The warnings continue.

WARNING: when storing the old-style acoustic couplers in the carrying case pouch, always disconnect the male plug from the coupler marked “MOUTHPIECE”. Failure to do this can cause irreparable damage to the coupler.

Much of the documentation that the AP distributed with the Model 100 can be described as “quaint” today. Many of the computing basics that we take for granted were foreign to people in the early 80’s. In addition, for a number of reporters, this was their first exposure to a keyboard. They would very often write out their stories longhand and then dictate them to a stenographer, typist, or newsroom assistant over the phone. Some hand-holding was necessary.

2 _ SHIFT When used in combination with any of the character keys, the SHIFT key will produce upper-case characters. SHIFT is located on the right of the keyboard under ENTER and on the left of the keyboard under the CTRL key.

4 _ CAPS LOCK When this key is pressed and locked down, all character keys subsequently pressed will appear in uppercase; however, it will not affect the numeral keys which will continue to produce lowercase characters. To generate an uppercase character of a numeral key, such as an upper rail which is the uppercase of the numeral six key, press SHIFT and the key simultaneously. CAPS LOCK is located on the lower left side of the keyboard next to SHIFT.

7 _ SPACEBAR This key will generate one character space at a time. It can also be used to position the large cursor over a program or text file listed on the menu. Once the cursor is directly over the desired item, press enter to open it.

Conclusion

Is the TRS-80 Model 100 a good computer for a reporter to use? Today, absolutely not. But for its time, it was a revolutionary tool, and the best available for its intended uses. It is the Volkswagen Beetle of computing.

I’ve owned close to a dozen laptops from the GRiD Compass to the IBM PC Convertible to any number of Apple portables. I use my eight-year-old MacBook Air daily, and enjoy working on it. But there’s a lot of be said for a unitasker. The Model 100 allows a writer to just write. To focus on the words and the story they’re trying to tell without pop-ups, instant notifications, and the temptation to connect to the internet and get lost down a mental rabbit hole. And for that reason, when I want to write for the pure pleasure of writing, I take my Model 100 to a coffee shop, put in my earphones, and just get stuff done.