A Deep Dive Into A 1980s Radio Shack Computer Trainer

For those of us who remember Radio Shack as more than just an overpriced cell phone store, a lot of the nostalgia for the retailer boils down to the brands on offer. Remember the Realistic line of hi-fi and stereo gear? How about Archer brand tools and parts? Patrolman scanners, Micronta test instruments, and don’t forget those amazing Optimus speakers — all had a place in our development as electronics nerds.

But perhaps the most formative brand under the Radio Shack umbrella was Science Fair, with a line of kits and projects that were STEM before STEM was a thing. One product that came along a little too late for our development was the Science Fair Microcomputer Trainer, and judging by [Michael Wessel]’s deep dive into the kit, we really missed the boat. The trainer was similar to the earlier “100-in-1”-style breadboarding kits, with components laid out on a colorful cardboard surface and spring terminals connected to their leads, making it easy to build circuits using jumper wires. The star of the show in the microcomputer trainer was a Texas Instruments TMS1100, which was a pretty advanced chip with a 4-bit CPU with its own ROM and RAM as well as a bunch of IO lines. The trainer also sported a peppy little 400-kHz crystal oscillator clock, a bunch of LEDs, a seven-segment display, a speaker, and a rudimentary keyboard.

The first video below is a general introduction to the trainer and a look at some basic (not BASIC) programs. [Michael] also pulls out the oscilloscope to make some rough measurements of the speed of the TMS1100, which turns out to be doing only about 400 instructions per second. That’s not much, but in the second video we see that it was enough for him to nerd-snipe his collaborator [Jason] into coding up an 80-nibble Tower of Hanoi solver. It’s a little awkward to use, as the program runs in spurts between which the user needs to check memory locations to see which disc to move to which peg, but it works.

It looks like people are rediscovering the Microcomputer Trainer all of a sudden. It might be a good time to pick one up.

15 thoughts on “A Deep Dive Into A 1980s Radio Shack Computer Trainer

  1. When I was a kid I had a friend who had one of those 100-in-1 kits with all the spring contacts, and I wanted one so badly I could taste it.  This was approximately 1971, and I believe it was Heathkit brand.  My family came back to the States in 1974, and that’s when I “discovered” Radio Shack.  At the time, it was all about components, project boxes, and other things needed for projects, stereo equipment (including turntables and open-reel tape recorders, cassettes, even 8-track—things today’s young people have no concept of), CB radio, antennas, tools, radios, and even vacuum tubes.  Cell phones and home computers did not exist yet.  There’s a bit of nostalgia there, although it was another 7+ years before I had any interest in comuters.

    1. This scenario existed here in Germany, too. Up until mid-90s. Up to the end of 20th century, you could say.

      CB radio, r/c cars, music cassettes, crystal radio sets, satellite TV, electronic construction sets (Kosmos was popular) etc.
      That all was still common at the time.

      There even was a nice computer interface for Windows 3.1x (Kosmos Hi-Tec).
      The software was being written in 16-Bit Visual Basic.

      Likewise, in the 80s, there were various computer interfaces by Fischertechnik (not Fisher Price).
      That was another popular manufacturer of construction sets.
      The interfaces were for controlling robot arms, for example. They existed for C64, Apple, IBM PC and so on.

      Another popular maker was Busch or “ELOtronic” (there was an electronic magazine named ELO).
      See ELOtronic Studio Center 2070 (aka Electronic Studio Center 2070).
      It had been re-released multiple times over the years.

      There also was a microcontroller model, the Busch Microtronic 2090.
      It was a learning “computer”, so to say.
      Very primitive, below the level of an RCA COSMAC Elf or COSMAC VIP.

      1. It’s a Westminster derivative, which was invented for MICR, where the information was printed in magnetic ink so a magnetic head could read it much more cheaply than an equivalently capable OCR system. It strikes a balance between being human readable and being machine readable.

  2. RS had the best bulk packs of components. I remember 100+ transistors for $1.00. Untested but almost all good. Same with ICs, ceramic caps, resistors and hardware packs. I still have my $4.95 signal injector that works fine.

  3. Ah, nostalgia. A Remco crystal radio kit, a Remco basic electricity lab thing, and a (unknown brand) 50-in-1 kit were formative items in my childhood. I was out of high school before a computer trainer found its way to me, but I did cough up for a COSMAC VIP computer.

    Today I would definitely recommend to kids to get some exposure to assembler or C on a trainer or dev board, to learn basics like lighting a LED, controlling a small motor, scanning a small keyboard, etc. Yes, even an Arduino would do.

  4. Man, you guys took me back to my nerdy adolescence! Riding my bicycle up to the Radio Shack. Using my ‘Free Battery of the Month’ card for a fresh 9-volt battery, Archer Project Kits, inexpensive R/C vehicles, shortwave radio antennas, etc. Radio Shack in the 1970s was awesome. We also had a Heathkit store in our town, but that was a bit advanced for a kid.

  5. I would like to run the program, but first I want to complete/debug my recreation of the GMC-4 Microcomputer USB loader to load the code into my RadioShack Microcomputer Trainer.
    See: https://demin.ws/blog/english/2012/07/25/gmc4-loader-assembled/

    I now realize that it might have to do with the small blob covered controller of the GMC-4 versus the TMS1100 of the RadioShack Microcomputer Trainer. Would the two 74HC4051’s be capable enough to establish a connection via the GND for the keyboard matrix of the RadioShack Microcomputer Trainer?

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