By FREDERICK ALLEN
WATCH THIS,=B2 SAYS RICK HANSON. He stands up, holds his laptop in front of
him at shoulder level, and lets go. It drops and bangs on the floor of his
office, a tidy room in his California home crammed with computers, scanners=
printers, fax machines, model-car kits, hot-rod posters, videos, and a
small, orderly electronics workbench. The computer bounces and clatters to =
rest. Hanson picks it up and switches it on. It is ready to go instantly,
without warming up.
The Model 100: full-size keyboard, tiny display.
"If that was a modern laptop," he says, "I just lost $5,000."
It is a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, the world's first laptop, from all th=
way back in 1983, and it looks like an oversize calculator with a keyboard.
It came with 32 kilobytes of RAM=8Babout a thousandth as much as its typical
counterpart today=8Ba 40-character-by-8-line liquid-crystal display, and no
disk drive whatever, hard or floppy. Many hand-held calculators are more
powerful nowadays, but Rick Hanson is one of several thousand people who
still swear by the little machine=8Band is the founder and head of their
informal organization, Club 100.
"In this country, if it's not brand-new, it's not worth a damn," he says.
"When people tell me their brand-new computer is obsolete, I ask them, 'Did
you fly here in an airplane? How old was that?' If I use a laptop that's no=
obsolete, I have to wait forever for it to boot; its battery will last thre=
hours instead of sixteen hours like this one; if I drop it, it breaks.
Everything about it is too complicated.
"The Model 100 is simple and rugged. Newspapermen loved it=8Band some still
do. If an elephant steps on it, it still works. It runs on four AA
batteries. Its plain text is compatible with everything, and it has a
built-in modem, so you can file from anywhere. It has been on space
shuttles, on U-2 spy planes, on oil rigs."
Hanson, 49, is a professional Web-site designer, and he actually writes som=
of the html for his clients on his Model 100 while sitting at the counter a=
Ann's Sunshine Cafe, near his home in Pleasant Hill, California. "The geniu=
behind this machine," he says, "was none other than Bill Gates. The softwar=
for it was the last code Gates ever personally wrote himself. He was so far
ahead of everybody, even then, that he was inventing the laptop when the
personal computer was still a crazy idea. He even gave it a port for
connecting to bar-code scanners, for use in manufacturing. That's how far
ahead of the curve he was.
Rick Hanson sits at his ur-laptop; behind him are three more he is
refurbishing (plus some present-day technology).
"Gates took it to Radio Shack, and they said, 'Well, we'll make a thousand
of them, and if we can't sell them, we'll just find some use for them.' But
at about $1,000 apiece, it was instantly a big hit. I fell in love with it
"I went to Homebrew, the original computer club, in 1971, after I came out
of the service. In 1979, when I went on-line, I realized that people who ar=
on-line always go snobbish. You had to be on CompuServe to be part of the
Model 100 community, so I started Club 100 as an outfit that gave support b=
catalogue, phone, mail, and bulletin board."
In 1986 the Model 100 was replaced by the 102, which was only superficially
different, and a couple of years later a Model 200 came out. By 1989 they
were discontinued=8Bancient history.
Today the remaining users of the Model 100 may number in the tens of
thousands. Hanson's Club 100 has a Model 100 Web site where you can buy and
sell the machines (they go for up to $250), order peripherals, and download
free software, and it gets about 1,500 visits a day. Its address is
"Newspapermen are still the core users," he says. He points to a couple of
100s he has cleaned and refurbished so they look new. "This one here I'm
fixing up for a reporter in San Diego. That one's for a medical student, to
take notes in the library. They like it because you just turn it on and
start writing. Press one key to save what you've written. Press three or
four to modem to somewhere. For writing and saving and sending, it cannot b=
The number of users is dwindling, but recently the Model 100 has found a
second life. Brendan Murphy, a New York financial journalist, has founded a=
outfit called Computers for Africa dedicated to getting reporters to donate
the Model 100s in their attics=8Btypically the first computers they owned=8Bto
send to journalists in Mali and Senegal who write their dispatches by
longhand and send them in by putting them on a bus.
How long will the Model 100 hold out in the United States? "The secret is
that technology changes, but people haven't advanced," Hanson says. "This i=
the Model T of computers. Model T's last a long time. For me, I can't see
ever getting rid of it.