How did a customer get his hands on a new, top-secret computer before its official release?
Remember the Tandy Model 16 computer? It was an extension of the Tandy
Model II (a 4Mhz machine that sounds primitive now) with an
additional 68000 CPU card and memory card in the cage. The single-sided
SA800 disk drive was replaced with a thin-line (or two) DC powered disk
drives. The Model 16 lived on for a long time, actually, and for a
while, Tandy had a huge number of UNIX-derived machines in the
marketplace. People were doing all kinds of things with the 16 based
systems, later called the 6000.
I was working for Tandy at the time this machine was being developed.
The company was paranoid beyond belief about it because information on
the earlier machine had been leaked to the press. The company became
divided into the knows and don’t knows. Even in Tech Support, only a
few people knew about it. Customer service was totally in the dark,
except for the director--a guy named Bill.
One day much to my consternation a guy named Kam from customer service came by and asked, “What’s a Model 16?” I had to keep a straight face, play dumb and say "What’s
that?" Kam told me that a customer had called in on the 800 number
complaining that he his Model 16 kept getting disk errors.
I should explain that the Model II and the Model 16 were the same as
far as the Z80 side of the computer went. But the disk drive in the
Model II was an AC-powered unit with 8-inch, single-sided media that
ran continuously and on access loaded the head. The Model 16 used a DC-powered drive that was half the thickness of the Model II and on drive
access would start rotating. The drive was much faster in stepping, but
it had that startup delay to spin up on first access. As a result, if
you tried to run the Model II operating system, you would get disk
errors all the time and had to retry to keep the drive spinning.
Since I wasn't allowed to talk to anyone else about it, I went over
to speak with Bill in customer service. Mystified, we decided to call the customer to confirm he actually had a Model 16. The stock number and serial
number checked out. Sure enough, he had one--in Lancaster PA of all
places! How the heck?
The customer had purchased what he thought were four Model II computers
for his business. He set up three of them at work and took the fourth
computer home, which happened to be the Model 16.--in a Model II box!
We couldn't figure out how he had it and he didn't know what the heck
he had. And while he said he’d pay any difference in price, he would
not give it back.
We made some quick decisions, and sent the customer an NDA. We brought
Kam back in and swore him to secrecy. The customer was given Kam's name
and direct phone number and told not to talk to anyone at Tandy
but Kam, Bill, and me about it. As soon as the customer sent
us back the signed NDA, I gave him patches that would
allow for a ‘special’ version of TRSDOS that would work on both models.
It would step the drives at the slower Model II rate and also put an
access timeout in place to prevent the disk access errors.
This became known as TRSDOS 2.0d for ‘dual.’ I did it for the repair
centers so they could have a single operating system that would work on
any of the machines instead of having multiple disks on hand. I later
had to add reverse copy protection, but that’s yet another story!
The customer then became one of our "field testers," and as far as I
know, he never leaked a word and was never charged for the difference.
Later on I pieced together what had happened: The origin of this mystery dated back to 1979, when the Model II was announced. As a test, Tandy delivered ten units
to selected cities. I was sent down to Miami to oversee the delivery
of the machines there.
Originally I was supposed to just look and observe, but the first two
machines that were opened up at the computer centers were damaged beyond
belief. The problem was the mechanical design.
The card cage was
fastened to a metal plate on the computer's plastic case. On the left
side was a fairly large power supply and on the right the 8-inch drive,
all in a vertical orientations. In shipping, the metal plate and case would flexed, and the top of the
disk drive would swing back and forth, breaking pieces off the case. I
had to make repairs to the first two machines just to get them
functional and also ordered new case parts. At that point I elected to drive around Florida to check out each machine upon delivery. Good decision, as every one of them needed repair. I also got
to talk to all the customers, apologize, and make sure everybody was
Then I got to Key West, where the last Model II was scheduled for
delivery. But. it wasn’t there. It was Friday night, so I had to wait
until Saturday morning to even be able to call anybody to inquire about
it. Not bad, being stuck in Key West for a weekend. I tried to go out
snorkeling to Sand Key, but Hurricane Fredrick bore in on us. The
weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed. We made it
back to Key West with half the people in the boat having lost their lunch en route.
Monday morning I found out the Key West machine was never shipped
because it was a 32K version instead of a 64K version. I got back to
Miami safely and the trip was deemed a success. Braces were quickly
added to the machine design and the problem was solved.
Naturally the factory didn’t want another disaster like this with the
Model 16 so when it was close to release they quietly boxed up ten
units--in Model II boxes--and shipped them to Philadelphia with routing
tags so they could be shipped right back. Good idea, actually. But when
the machines came back, there were nine Model 16s and one Model
II. The crew at the Philadelphia warehouse figured they were all the
same and just sent a count of boxes.
The factory went crazy about it, but no one told anyone in management
that they had lost a machine. Since it was in a standard Model II box
it eventually made its way to a computer center, where it was sold to
the customer. Mystery solved.
Mike Yetsko attended Lehigh University in the early 1970s and worked
for Tandy for 9 years through the early days of the TRS-80. He
currently works at Wavemark designing RFID products and has been a HAM
radio operator for over 25 years. He enjoys skiing and gets out on the
slopes as much as he can.