Enginursday: Radio Shack: A Remembrance

Radio Shack is finally declaring bankruptcy, but for many of us, it died a long, long time ago

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Radio Shack is finally declaring bankruptcy, but for many of us, it died a long, long time ago.

And yes, I know it's Chapter 11, which means "restructure and reorganize, but not necessarily shut down." Still, I think something crucial has snapped.

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Image courtesy The Old Robots website, which is fully rocking and should be immediately visited. <-

One of my earliest My very earliest Christmas morning memories revolve around getting this beauty. It was slow, clunky, and the claw couldn't drag a napkin off a plate of coookies (ask how I know), but man, was it amazing.

As a nerdy kid, Radio Shack was the store to cruise in the mall, especially around Christmastime when the aisles were stacked with amazing RC toys. It was a place of mystery, with huge spools of cable for all different applications – more than I had any concept could exist. Massive antennae scraped the ceilings, looming over everything in the store.

There were sections devoted to expensive equipment I didn't even kind of understand. Amateur radio! Citizens band! Home security! All this stuff, and I didn't have any idea what to do with it. I think, more than anything, the seed planted by that mystery drove me to engineering.

The best part was the mystery section at the back of the store, with all the little bubble packed ICs, resistors, transistors and other stuff I don't remember and couldn't even guess at. And of course, the 100-in-one kits!

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Image from the Museum of Play website<-

I wanted one of these more than I could put into words. My parents wouldn't let me have one; they were convinced I'd electrocute myself and that my smoldering corpse would burn the house down. I had friends that had them, but they'd lost all the pieces and the book and basically we just used the body as an obstacle in our own epic battles of Five Armies (GI Joe, Gobots, Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake and always, always, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man).

Last but not least, the collection of Good Books.

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Image from a website selling illegally-obtained E-books which I will not here link.<-

Forrest Mims wasn't the only author to write books for Radio Shack, but he's certainly the best remembered. His Engineer's Mini Notebooks are still on my shelf, and still represent a valuable source of basic information for me to refer back to (right alongside "The Art of Electronics!" – 3rd edition coming soon!). And his book "Getting Started in Electronics" (which we still sell today) is probably the single most-cited book among engineers of a certain age when someone asks us how to, well, get started.

I grew up on the tail end of the (first) glory days of electronics as a hobby. By the time I was in college, Radio Shack had already turned the corner into "just another consumer electronics store." The last few years have been a heady time for me; working at SparkFun means I get to participate in the best part of the new golden age of hobby electronics – enabling the hobbyists! Eight-year-old me would be floored by the awesome stuff I get to do with electronics on a daily basis, and frankly, it kind of makes up for how utterly disappointed he'd be in the state of video game arcades.


Comments 30 comments

  • RadioShack went brain dead when the execs decided it should become a "me too" player in the cell phone retail market.

    Of course all the good stuff will sell now that they've marked it all down below retail price.

  • What I remember most from Radio Shack's glory days in the 80's was the way they would always demand your personal information when you were trying to pay for things at the cash register. I once had a clerk refuse to sell me an item because I wouldn't tell him my address.

    • Yeah, I was buying batteries, and they started in with the 'interrogation'. I refused to answer all of those questions, so they wouldn't sell me the batteries, so I said OK, and then my name was John Smith, my phone number started out with 555 etc. He knew I was lying, and he hated me for it but we completed the transaction. And I stopped going there. In my more paranoid moments I think it was an anti-terrorist thing; imagine all of the horrible little devices you could create with some timers etc. But it was probably all about getting that junk mail into your mailbox.

  • Indeed they died a long time ago. My mom was clearing out stuff from her house recently and sent me my, wait for it, not 100 in 1, not 150 in 1 but my 160 in 1 Science Fair kit. I just noticed it still has a Radio Shack price sticker on the side of the box. I wish I could still find the Engineers Mini Notebooks. Good times. http://i909.photobucket.com/albums/ac291/kingskoins/G1_zpsf71ceb14.jpg

    • Yep! That's the device that started it all for me.... My parents got me one of those at around the age of 6 or so and were wondering if I'd like it. Once I completed all 160 projects, I even started designing my own.... Soon after came my TRS-80 Model III (parents were wondering if it was a waste of money ;) ). The Model III still works today! Now that I'm an engineer (software and electrical), I guess they got their money's worth!

  • [LUMEN Electronic project kit 100 in one.](http://oddstr13.openshell.no/gallery/image/88/)

    I have one of these lying around :) I have had many an hour of fun building circuits with this kit.

  • I worked @RS 15 years ago, it was really depressing, all the "Sales Makers" as they called us were paid on commission / spiffs which explains their attack tactics when you come in the door. Everyone from the regional manager on down were hyper-fixated on selling cell phones at the expense of everything else.

    one cool thing I learned when I worked there was that you could order the service manual for pretty much everything they sold, (at least back then) and they were really good manuals, with real information like schematics, test points, trouble shooting information. But, you would have to argue with the "sales maker" that you wanted the service manual as opposed to the owners manual.

    • Radio Shack was also a notable "stencil brad" carrier. some of the electronics products were built by other vendors, and dressed up with an in-house trademark, like Optimus or Realistic.

      I've got a Realistic MG-1 synthesizer that's a Moog under the hood...the brother of the Moog Rogue, minus the pitch bend wheel. Back before the internet was really a thing, and schematics weren't easily available, I was able to order the service manual for that MG-1 from the Shack. It was a $12 or $15 well spent - complete schematics, theory of operation and test/calibration procedures.

      Also interesting to note that after all these years, the guts of the Moog Werkstatt aren't all that different from the MG-1, and they've released the schematic for it - this time for free!

  • I worked at RS in 1978 selling TRS-80 computers and programming them for my customers. It was the start of my career in electronics. They started out selling to the ham radio crowd, so they have re-invented themselves several times since they started in 1921. What can I say? They had a good run.

  • I think on April 1st the front page of sparkfun.com should be filled with pictures of cellphones. There could even be a blurb about how Sparkfun will now be knows as simply "The Fun".

  • Odd reading this on a website that could be blamed as part of the reason RS went to pot...

    • It is probably a little bit of both. Most people would say Radio Shack started going downhill before Sparkfun ever started in Nate's dormroom (about 12 years ago). At the very least they started going downhill before internet stores in general became the norm for shopping. But remember, they were the big kids on the block with the clout and the money, they just adjusted their focus to cell phones and there were others ready to start picking up the slack.

    • Actually, I'd say Radio Shack's self-destruction contributed to the rise of this website/store; they got out of depth in hobby electronics and focused on cell phones, sacrificing what made them unique. Something had to rush in to fill the vacuum.

  • As an aside, to this day I wonder about the oddball "Space-Age Integrated Circuit". Was that thing ever used in anything else? By the time I was moving on to real components in the mid/late 70's, everything was epoxy DIP packages. That abomination in the kit was more like discrete components with their cases removed, and then shellac'ed down onto a small white PCB. If I remember correctly, the projects that used the SAIC were the least successful of the lot.

    • I think it was an op-amp. Wish I had saved my old 150 in 1 kit!

    • That was a hybrid circuit. It had one transistor, some film resistors and maybe a capacitor. I had the 100 in 1 set and I just realized I still remember (I think) that the transistor in the "IC" was a 2SC54 and the two metal can transistors to the right were 2SB56.

      I ruined the little panel meter within days of getting the kit but I learned tons from making and modifying the example circuits.

  • Not that I needed any of this stuff. But I at least wanted to say goodbye to the Radio Shacks in the area. So I got a weather radio for mom, and a new TV remote, and some Maker parts and dodads. The closest RatShack had already closed. I hit 2 others. First was do to close in 5 days and was already marked down 50%-80% and picked bare. Other was going though the end of March and was at 25%. Word is they don't exactly know yet which might reopen as Sprint outlets with a selection of Radio Shack things. Still, kind of sad. The Radio Shack is Dead! Long live the Radio Shack!

  • All Radio Shacks are not going away. Just the ones that are not profitable. So the one in my town is here to stay. Not sure how it will change though. I told an employee that if they have input on how Radio Shack should change then they should engage the community by being involved with and putting in place maker spaces.

    As for the cell phone and battery sales angle I got so tired of that. I actually wore a hat one day that I had a piece of paper attached that said, "No, I don't want any cell phones or batteries." One of the sales guys still asked if I wanted batteries. The other guys said, "Did you read his hat?" We have a good laugh about it.

    Now I just walk into the store and ignore the salesmen. Always going back to the parts section.

  • Wow, this brings back memories! As a kid, I remember how excited I was when I was finally allowed to cross the the busy road a few blocks from the house, all by myself -- it meant I could ride my bike to Radio Shack any time I wanted! It was only about 6 blocks away and I went there often. It was interesting seeing all of the fancy equipment on the shelves, but I always went straight to the back of the store where there was rack upon rack of parts -- almost half the store, not the small cabinet of drawers they have now. You could get just about anything back then: I built many complete projects with nothing but Radio Shack components. And browsing through the catalog -- man, I couldn't wait until a new catalog came out: looking through it was almost like porn to a young budding engineer nerdling. And I don't know how many wonderful hours I spent building all manner of projects with the 100 in 1 kit.

    In recent years, it's been so depressing going into a Radio Shack. I remember when the guy behind the counter actually new something about electronics, and could actually help with problems and give advice on projects. At the time, their motto really made sense: "You've got questions? We've got answers!" Now, the motto might as well be "You've got questions? ummm... We've got cell phones!"

    It will be sad to see them go. But as it was said in the opening lines of this blog: in my mind, they died years ago. :-(

    PS: I also really miss HeathKit..

    • You reminded me of when I moved out to the Silicon Gulch area for a couple of years. The dump of an apartment that I was able to get (the "for rent" listings in the San Jose Mercury covered about as much area as a business card) had the one "advantage" of being right across the street from a Radio Shack store. But being in Silicon Gulch, I could jump in the car and run over to the (original) Fry's Electronics, or Weird Stuff, or Jameco, or some other shops.

      Yeah, it's nice to reminisce about the "good old days", but frankly, I like the Internet and being able to shop SparkFun (and others) and see, before I click on the "buy" button, whether they have what I want in stock. (There have been times when I've "done the rounds" and rather than "Letting my fingers to the walking" through the phone book letting them dance on the keyboard.) And, to boot, it's very easy today to get datasheets -- something that wasn't true until we had the Internet and Google.

      • Oh, don't get me wrong, I think it's great that we have so much information available online, and so many online sources for more parts than I ever imagined were available back in the ride-the-bike-to-Radio-Shack days. Finding datasheets online and downloading them into a tablet makes it much easier to find the information you need. But there are still fond memories of being able to walk into any Radio Shack for a good selection of parts, and also flipping through a well-worn 7400 series databook.

  • I've almost exclusively depended on rechargeable batteries for years and used to buy the RS ones. I still have many in my stash, though I don't trust all to be safely chargeable these days. For gifts, I got the 200-in-1 kit and Armatron, both of which I still have. I also have nearly all the Forest Mims books and use them frequently. Got one of the quadcopters for my son for Christmas and am still working on tuning it. I do appreciate having a RS staying open in my 'hood because they have parts for phones, electronics, TVs, etc. so I rarely have to buy something new (hope that's the case for years to come!).

  • Same here, I experienced the golden years of the mid-70's to 80's. One of the cub scout merit badges required that you build a crystal radio. The scout book, that bastion of up-to-date information, showed a hand-wound coil, a Galena crystal, and a "cat's whisker". Uh, yeah right.

    So my parents bought RS's crystal radio kit for me, with the more modern variable capacitor and diode rectifier design. I was hooked on that. I got the two-transistor radio kit, and then hungered for more.

    Fortunately for me, when I prostrated myself asking for the smaller project kit (the 50-in-1) my parents had the good sense to realize that the 100-in-1 was the better value. So much to my delight I ended up with more than I asked for.

    Thus began the life-long adventure...

    • You mean you didn't just go grab a piece of galena from the coal stack in your basement? Or buy tubes at the neighborhood drug store?

      Yah, that's what all the books in the school library said to do.... in the 80s!

  • Any chance of Sparkfun carrying the RadioShack project boxes?

  • I remember the "Battery Club" cards back in the 60s. The free battery once a month powered a lot of my experimentation. My mother accused me of "throwing my money at them" -- she had no understanding of my techie needs. I heard the last of that, though, when I got promoted at my job in an electronics factory that was paying more than the job my father had at the time.

    I have mixed feelings about RS passing. I recall the frustration with trying to solder a "barrel connector" back in the 60s because the melting point of the insulating plastic was less than the melting point of solder. A couple of years ago, I couldn't wait to get a good one from DigiKey or some other supplier (and couldn't even afford the time to drive to Fry's Electronics) so had to use one from the neighborhood RS store -- and they hadn't improved the situation in more than 40 years! Argh! (At least I could make a comment on their website -- and was surprised that they didn't kill it, as it was negative.)

    On the subject of Ham Radio, the HT-202 and HT-404, while kind of "clunky", would work in a lot of situations where a "fancier" (pronounced "any other") hand held radio would be unusable because of interference. Those were very good radios, and the prices were fairly good, too.

    The one big thing about RS that I am really sad about is that a lot of kids get the idea that they CAN do it themselves by seeing those parts hanging on the walls or, more recently, being in the drawers.

    At least we still have SparkFun, Adafruit, DigiKey, Mouser, et al. (One I'm glad has gone is PolyPaks.)

    • I remember the battery club! But it was the 70's, not the 60's for me. Also, I had the updated "150 in 1" kit. I think I built all the projects, augmented some.

      • Yeah, definitely the 1970's for the battery club (for me). My parents bought me a one of the "NNN in 1" kits to keep me from disassembling other (more expensive) things. Battery club, buying piddly bits, pouring over the catalog, and always keeping me thinking. That was the big pay off for me: it programmed me to think in terms of: "What can be made of that?" and "How does that work?".

  • I hit up my home town RadioShack made sure I cleaned out all of the good stuff. 30-60% off everything in the store 60% all Arduino and tinker stuff. I have lots of bread boards and other great things.

    • Really? Wow! My local store must be one of the ones that is staying - I went in there intending to buy all kinds of stuff I don't need right now, and I found it had just been remodeled since the last time I was in there, and it seemed to have more useful stuff than normal, so although I am glad it will stay, I got no good deals!! :-)
      On the otherhand, the fundamental reason they're dying hasn't changed.. While I was in there, someone came in and asked if they had an "IC Puller", and the sales kid had NO idea what he was talking about.. after a few minutes, the kid actually said "so you're looking for something that takes out those things with pins on the side"?

      In the late 70's/Early to mid 80's, you could actually go into the store and expect some basic knowledge, and maybe even some help with a circuit you're trying to build.. Not anymore.. If your question isn't about the latest iPhone app, the kid just isn't going to know...

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