Sunday, February 8, 2015

R.I.P. Radio Shack

You've probably heard the news, Radio Shack has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
For many, this is about as shocking as getting up one morning and hearing that Abe Vigoda had died. He was still alive?
For me, it's not at all surprising, but it is still sad. Back in the 70's and 80's I spent a lot of time and money at the venerable geek shops.  

I have fiddled around with electronics since I was in high school. After graduation I joined the Air Force precisely to learn electronics. And I did. In fact, immediately after my military schooling, the Air Force sent me to an instructor course, pinned a heavy metal badge* on my uniform and put me behind a podium for the next three years, teaching electronics.
During and after the Air Force, I played around with digital circuits.  I lived and breathed Radio Shack part numbers.T
his was all well before personal computers. The available circuits had engineering type names, mutiplexers, counters, flip-flops, converters, gates, shift registers, etc. They performed digital functions without the benefit of a controlling program.
Basic stuff assembled on a bread-board, also a Radio Shack item. The IC's cost only a couple of bucks at the Shack, the more complicated ones a bit more. Popular Electronics, the monthly Bible for electro-tinkerers even exclusively listed Radio Shack part numbers with their projects.
For starters I hooked up a little 8-legged IC called a 555 timer. Connect a couple of capacitors, a variable resistor (volume control) and of course a red LED to that little bug and you could produce pulses at speeds between minutes between pulses to thousands of pulses per second. Nice, clean pulses.Take those pulses to a counter that counts binary 0 to 15 (000-1111)and take that output to a TTL 74154 demultiplexer add LED's to output of that thing and you have a variable speed light sweeper, like Kit on 'Night Rider' or the Cylons on 'Battlestar Galactica'.
Frequent trips, a few bucks here, a few there, a pretty inexpensive hobby and a fantastic way to get hands-on up-to-date electronics experience. Unlike the vacuum tubes and old, analog transistor circuits I was exposed to in the service.
Radio Shack was created in 1921 by brothers Theodore and Melvin Deutschmann, who leaped on the very first wave of electronics as a hobby, providing parts, tubes, wire, tools, etc. to the new 'amateur radio' hobbyists cropping up in 'shacks' around the country. In 1921 the first licensed commercial radio station (KDKA, Pittsburgh) had only been on the air for less than one year. (I had to know this little tidbit for the test to get my own FCC broadcast license when I was 16). Amateur radio was pretty much the very first techno-fad. It enabled Ham's to communicate across the country and around the world. (I would explain how it all works, but it involves things like amplitude modulation, skip, the ionosphere, boring stuff.) And yes, I had a HAM license myself for a while as well. . . KA6TAT, for those that are curious about that sort of thing.
Once computers became personal, Radio Shack started flailing. They certainly tried, the TRS 80 was quite a respectable computer system in its day, Radio Shack simply failed to follow the trends once the IBM PC model became the industry standard. That's pretty much the day the music died for the old company. They survived the depression, a few nasty wars, the Nixon administration, they even made it through Disco. They even thrived after being bought by a hobby leather company (Tandy). But rather than capitalize on their massive retail presence with an updated computer standard, they bailed. Those of us who'd tinkered with the old circuit parts were by then building our own computers. (IBM PC warranty certified technician 1984)
Radio Shack didn't even pick up on the add-on board/peripheral market. Instead they sold remote control cars, TV antennas and batteries. 
The last couple of decades has seen that once highly respected company reduced to a cell phone and accessory kiosk that didn't even make their own phones. You can still get a TV antenna there.
In the past few years I've only been to the Shack a handful of times, for connectors or something, they didn't have the right ones.
They've had 11 fiscal quarters of dismal and sliding numbers. They have no vision, no goal, no product line. Nobody's asking who will fill those shoes, they have no shoes to fill.
Yes, I recall fondly the heady old days of digging through the racks and drawers, reading the tech specs on the packages, creating projects in my head, ah yes, good times.. . 
So long, old friend. 

* The Badge: that is indeed my old instructor badge, my second one. The first one I was issued did not have the word 'Master' at the bottom of it. Of my entire nine year military career, I am perhaps the proudest of that second badge. 'Master Instructor' had a specific and rigorous qualification process. College hours, podium time, experience teaching all thirteen or fourteen 'blocks', or units of the course. Only about one in fifty instructors were awarded that badge, there are fewer of these awarded than commendation medals.
Fortunately there was no minimum age requirement for it. I had just turned 20, at the time as best anyone could determine, the youngest airman to ever have been awarded it. So yeah, I gloat.