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.

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