Today I want to look back on the premier magazine for the Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer: The Rainbow.
But before that, a bit of backstory…
Oldies but goodies
There are many in the retro computing world that are, for all practical purposes, computer hipsters: too young to have ever owned an 8-bit home computer, but enjoying immersing themselves in the retro tech of days gone by. (If “hipster” offends you, perhaps think of it as the equivalent of steam punk from the late 1970s/early 1980s.)
Whatever it is called, there sure is a great amount of interest in retro computing these days.
I was eight years old when the Apple II was introduced, though I don’t think I even knew it existed until years later. This means I am old enough that I could have been a pioneering user of, as Wikipedia calls it, “one of the first highly successful mass-produced text command microcomputer products.” (Whoever wrote that should really be in marketing!) But instead, my first exposure to computers was a “computer room” (in quotes because there was no computer in it, and because it was more of a closet) at L.F. Smith Elementary School in South Houston, Texas in the late 1970s.
I wrote about my quest for my first computer on my Sub-Etha Software blog, so you can click over there if you are curious. If you aren’t curious enough to click, I’ll summarize here: It was apparently a Teletype Model 33 printing terminal. We dialed a rotary phone, listened for the computer to answer it, then placed the phone on an accoustic coupler modem. We then got to load and run programs like math quizes and a text-based football game.
But I digress.
My point is, I am old.
What’s in a name?
The first computer I had was an Atari VCS. I knew it must be a computer because it had the word right in the name: Video Computer System.* There was even a way to program it in BASIC, and I envisioned being able to write my own Atari games! My dad never bought us that cartridge, though, so it would be a few more years before I learned what BASIC was.
* For the retro computing steam punk hipsters out there, this machine would be renamed the Atari 2600 five or so years later. Today we think of the Atari 2600 as being ancient tech, and I remember using the version of it that came out years before that!
It was truly a different time. Toys such as Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and Tinkertoys had been around for decades, and were now being replaced by toys that ran on batteries. Pinball machines and mechanical games in pool halls were being replaced by video games in arcades. Families that would gather together in the living room to play board games like Monopoly where beginning to play electronic games on like Pong on their television.
As a child of the 70s, it was just a cool time to be alive. There was new and exciting stuff happening, and it significantly changed the way we entertain and got things done.
Plus, we got to experience Star Wars when it was brand new.
Computers come home
My first exposure to a non-video game “home computer” was around 1979 or 1980 when I lived in Mesquite, Texas. My next door neighbor’s mother worked for Texas Instruments.. Their house was always full of TI stuff. I remember them getting a TI-99 computer. About the only thing I recall about this “Atari with a keyboard” was a game cartridge called Car Wars and being shown a computer program that played a card game. My friend was able to know exactly what cards were going to be dealt because they were the same each time. He explained that the computer couldn’t do random, so his mom modified the program with a preset list of cards*.
* Hmmm, now that I go to tell the story, is it really possible that TI BASIC did not have a random function? Knowing what I now know, perhaps it was just the randomizer generating the same sequence of numbers every time the computer was powered on. Maybe one day I’ll find my old friend on Facebook and can ask him.
Little did I know how significant what I saw would become. (Not the TI-99 specifically. That had a rather short lifespan. But home computers in general.)
In 1982, I would get my first home computer – a $300 Commodore VIC-20 with 5K of memory. It was during this time that I started reading computer magazines like Family Computing, COMPUTE!, and COMPUTE!s Gazette. A year later, I moved over to a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer with 64K, and that led me to a Color Computer specific magazine called The Rainbow.
And now this article can start.
Origins of a Rainbow
By the time I got in to the Color Computer, Rainbow Magazine was around 350 pages each issue. Sometime in 1985, I decided I wanted to see how it all began. I ordered a back issue of the very first Rainbow – Volume 1, Number 1 from July 1981.
Imagine my surprise when I received a two-page newsletter, printed on a dot matrix printer. This was not The Rainbow I knew and loved! Could it be that this large, glossy magazine really started out as a newsletter some guy photocopied at the local office supply store?
Indeed, it was. Falsoft publishing was created out of these very humble beginnings.
You can take a look at a scan of this very first issue here.
To me, it is very much like having a time machine. The Color Computer was announced in May of 1980, then began selling at Radio Shack stores in August. The Rainbow newsletter began just under a year after the machine began being sold.
In those early months, systems with 4K ($400) and 16K were the most common. They came with Microsoft COLOR BASIC 1.0. The enhanced Microsoft EXTENDED COLOR BASIC ROM was a pricey upgrade. Storage was on cassette tape, since no floppy drive interface existed yet. In fact, about the only things that did exist were the computer, some ROM-Pak software cartridges, joysticks, and a printer.
A few existing publications, such as 80-Microcomputing (later known as 80-Micro), provided some coverage on the new colorful TRS-80, but there was apparently nothing dedicated solely to the machine. This is the environment in which Rainbow began.
Let’s take a quick journey back to 1981.
Paging Mr. Wells
Issue 1 documented a POKE command that would speed up the Color Computer. This would later be called the “double speed POKE” or the “high speed POKE”. It also offered an update to one of the example programs printed in Radio Shack’s EXTENDED COLOR BASIC manual, and a short program for playing music created by a program published in a different magazine. Most amusingly, a nearly full-page article was dedicated to word processing, and contained this program listing:
10 PRINT@416,;:LINE INPUT"(16 spaces)";A$ 20 PRINT#-2,A$ 30 CLS:GOTO10
It was this “word processing program” that this issue was typed with! As the article pointed out, this was much better than using a typewriter.
Issue 2 grew to nine pages. Inside was the rumor/prediction that Tandy’s upcoming disc system for the Color Computer would be released in August or September. There was also a much larger word processing program presented that could right-justify lines and print in two columns. There was also a POKE command that would get more memory for BASIC, though at the time, they didn’t understand how it actually worked. (It set the “start of BASIC” address to an area normally reserved for high-resolution graphics screens, so if you weren’t using high-resolution graphics, you could use all that memory for your program.) The very first contest appeared, challenging readers to break a code generated by a program.
Issue 3 was a whopping nineteen pages, and had the first sign of a monthly theme (“Some Special Programs for School Days”). The first correction for a previous program listing was published. It also contained the first advertisements – a small text ad for JARB Software (a contributor of program listings to the newsletter) and a full page for The Micro Works. I knew of Micro Works a few years later because they created a video digitizer* for the Color Computer.
* The DS-69 Digisector was designed by Tim Jenison, who later went on to found NewTek and create the Amiga-based Video Toaster. I now wonder if he was involved with Micro Works in 1981.
One notable thing to me was the review that started with “Do you need SEX…” It then went on to explain it meant S.E.C.S., a Screen Edit Control System from Datasoft. This program gave high-resolution graphics commands for non-EXTENDED BASIC systems, and contains the first reference to soon-to-be-legendary game programmer Steve Bjork:
Issue 4 was created using a much better printer. Now the letters finally had true lowercase descenders! This issue focused on “Printer Uses.” A new feature called Program Quickie was added, featuring a four-line program that calculated the percent of change between two numbers. Most of the other articles were game program listings, or print utilities. Soft Sector Marketing started advertising.
Issue 5 added ads for Chromasette Magazine (actually, a monthly cassette tape of programs) and TRANS/TECH (C.C. Writer word processor). The first “Letters to the Rainbow” section appeared. This issue announced the brand-new Radio Shack disc system for the Color Computer. It also contained the first BASIC programming tutorial, explaining how to use the GET and PUT commands for copying blocks of high-resolution graphics.
By issue 6, December 1981, The Rainbow moved to a small magazine format with artwork to go along with the articles. New advertisers included Spectral Associates, Illustrated Memory Banks, and Rainbow Connection Software. An article comparing the Radio Shack disc system and a third party offering was featured. There was a tutorial on how to use the random number command in BASIC, explaining that it was more advanced than on some other systems. A news column called “The Pipeline” debuted. It announced the release of a BASIC 1.1 ROM, and noted some of the new features, like being able to send a printer 8-bit values without needing a special driver program loaded. Rumors of the upcoming Scripsit (word processor) and Spectaculator (Visicalc type spreadsheet) ROM-Paks were mentioned, as well as an EDITOR/ASSEMBLER (this was probably EDTASM). There was also talk of a multi-pen plotter. Speaking of ROM-Paks, this issue also featured a tutorial on how to copy one to tape. I found interesting considering an earlier issue’s article urging people to not copy software. (Is a tape really a good personal backup for a hardware ROM-Pak?)
Let’s do the time warp, again
Reading through these old issues is like stepping in to a time machine. Yes, Virginia, there was a time before a disc drive could be hooked up to the CoCo! And speaking of CoCo, that term had yet to appear. It would be coined a bit later (I think by Chromasette Magazine).
One of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions is to try to read through all the issues of Rainbow Magazine, starting with that very first one in July 1981. Eventually I’ll catch up to November 1983 when I started subscribing, and then at some point around 1991, I’ll start reading the issues that I have never seen since I dropped my subscription by then.
You can follow my progress over at my website, which will contain far more verbose breakdowns of each issue. As I run across historically significant tidbits, I will try to share them here, as well.
Until then, I have to get back to my reading assignment. Hello, 1980s. I missed you.