Can you believe this year will mark 38 years since Radio Shack released the TRS-80 Color Computer (later nicknamed the “CoCo”)? According to the always reliable wikipedia, the Color Computer was announced on July 31, 1980. According to a calendar printed in the July 1987 issue of Rainbow magazine, the CoCo was introduced (made available for sale?) on August 20th that same year:
That date always stuck with me because it is my birthday. Too bad I didn’t know anything about computers in 1980, else I might have asked for one. Instead, I didn’t get switched on to computers until a few years later, with my first machine being a Commodore VIC-20 (“the first full featured color computer for under $300”) in 1982.
In my early days of owning a computer, I also owned some computer magazines. I remember Family Computing, COMPUTE! (wow, they published in until 1994), and later COMPUTE!’s Gazette, which focused on the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 (wow again, for them publishing until 1995). Somewhere I still have a box with all my old magazines in them.
When I switched from VIC-20 to Color Computer in 1983, I was still able to make use of some of those early magazines that contained CoCo versions of program listings. I remember being annoyed at seeing the CoCo version rely on BASIC’s single-note “PLAY” command for music, while they had to use assembly language routines to do the same on the Apple 2. If they were using assembly code, they could have done the same on the CoCo and gotten 4-voice harmony music out of the machine! But instead, that “easy graphics and sound programming from BASIC” must have made sticking with one-voice music the easier path. I think that always made the CoCo versions look worse than they had to.
Shattered by a Rainbow
At some point, I learned about an all-Color Computer magazine called The Rainbow. I think my first copy of Rainbow was the November 1983 “Data Communications” issue. I’ll have to dig out my storage box and see how well my memory has held up over the past 35 years!
In a way, it destroyed some of my hopes and dreams. When I made the decision to get a CoCo, part of the reason was because of the small selection of software Radio Shack sold for it. I thought, with such a small software base, it would be a great system to program for! I could become rich in such a desolate marketplace!
The 300+ pages of Rainbow, full of program listings and ads for hundreds of software and hardware items, made me give up those dreams. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t. The market was large enough for some programmers to make their living off of it. Even in the late 1980s, I heard about one shareware programmer who helped pay his way through college by writing CoCo software!
In addition to Rainbow, I also learned about two other CoCo-only publications. Color Computer Magazine was published from March 1983 to October 1984. There was also Hot CoCo (Wayne Green Publications), which lasted a bit longer, publishing from June 1983 to February 1986. (Those links lead to full scans of all the issues over at the Color Computer Archive site.)
Although I did buy a few issues of Color Computer and Hot CoCo, the only one I subscribed to was The Rainbow. As a junior high school student, I didn’t have the income for multiple subscriptions, though I wish I had – I expect I would have benefited from the other two publications.
I chose Rainbow because it was the largest. In December 1983, Hot CoCo had 148 pages, Color Computer Magazine had 146 pages, and Rainbow was larger than both of them put together at 340 pages!
I could read through the two smaller ones, and probably find an article of of interest, but Rainbow always seemed to have dozens of things I liked. If I could only afford one, it just made sense to go for the biggest. (At the time, Rainbow was more expensive, with a cover price of $3.95 versus $2.95 for the other two.)
Back to the Beginning
Sometime in early 1985, I must have been contemplating completing my collection of Rainbow because I decided to order a back issue of the first issue from July 1981. I think I spent $2.00 or so for the issue, plus $3.50 postage and handling.
Imagine my disappointment and surprise when it arrived and it was a photo copy of two sheets of paper, printed doubled sided by a dot matrix printer that didn’t even have true descenders for lowercase!
Could this be? Did this nearly-400 page behemoth of a magazine with it’s glossy, full color cover really start out as a two page newsletter?
Indeed it did!
But rather than complain, I ended up writing in to The Rainbow and suggested that reprinting this early issue inside the magazine would be a neat thing to do. In the July 1985 anniversary issue, they printed my letter and included a reproduction of that original two page newsletter:
I have an idea for your upcoming anniversary issue that you may like. I was told that THE RAINBOW started off as ·a two~page newsletter. Since many CoCo owners were not a part of that beginning, me included, I thought it would be nice to
see some reprints of the “early RAINBOW.” You may not think this is a big deal, but I would be more than happy to see how the # 1 CoCo magazine got its start. I think others share this curiosity as well as I do.
Editor’s Note: Great idea, Allen. So, for Allen and all of you helping us celebrate our fourth anniversary, we’ve reprinted our very first Issue in its entirety in this issue (see between pages 98 and 99) – a little birthday treat from all of us to all of you!
I think I had at least two other letters printed in the magazine, but this was the one I was most proud of. (Notice my little white lie about “I was told that…” I knew darn well it was a two page newsletter because I felt ripped off paying over five bucks to get a copy of it!)
Let’s do the time warp, again!
The days of monthly magazines with computer programs you could type in is long gone. But, the history of them has been preserved thanks to the efforts of folks willing to scan in old paper and make it available online for a new generation to discover (or for us old folks to use to relive our younger years).
You can find issues at Archive.org, but I think the best collection is at the previously-mentioned Color Computer Archive site:
Rainbow, The (Searchable Image)
That link will take you to a repository that contains scans of every issue of Rainbow, from the original two page newsletter in 1980, to the largest of the glossy magazine editions, down to the final newsprint issue of May 1993. Some scans are just images of the pages, but the above link had been OCR’d so you can do text searches on it (mostly).
Until these archives, I had only seen the issues that I owned, from November 1983 to sometime around 1991. I recall ending my subscription in protest because Rainbow had decided to not cover any of the “next generation” CoCo-style machines such as the MM/1. Looking back, that was something I regret. Had we all kept subscribing and supporting them, maybe they could have continued a few years longer.
With all of this said, I have decided to start an interesting project. I plan to read all the issues of Rainbow, starting with July 1981. I’ve actually made it through the first six issues, where it grew from two photocopied pages into the first “magazine style” issue with 19 pages in December 1981.
And boy is it a time travel experiment! It’s stunning to see the tiny thing that birthed the magazine I loved so much.
If you are looking for some retro reading for 2018, why don’t you join me? I bet we (re)learn many things over the course of the year.
It’s quite interesting reading news about Radio Shack working on a “disc system” for the Color Computer, and then reading a review of this new $600 add-on a few issues later. That, and all the mentions of COLOR BASIC, and why you might want to upgrade to 16K or 32K and EXTENDED COLOR BASIC, really take you back to an earlier time.
And I have yet to see the name “CoCo” used. That would come later.
I’ll share interesting tidbits as I run across them. I’m sure I will learn quite a bit about the early years before I was involved. Maybe you will to.
Until next time…
Thank you so much for your writings on the CoCo and for keeping its memories alive!