Isaac Asimov, Radio Shack Pitchman

Cedorris, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Cedorris, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0 / Cedorris, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

“I’ll never learn how to use it." Isaac Asimov wrote the prediction in his diary in May 1981, the same month Radio Shack delivered a Tandy TRS-80 Model II microcomputer to his 33rd story apartment in New York City. The various boxes sat, unopened, until a Radio Shack employee arrived a week later to set up the equipment in the corner of Asimov’s living room.

Turning it on would mark two important milestones in the 61-year-old author’s life: It would end his exclusive use of a typewriter, and it would lead to Asimov’s face becoming a familiar sight to more than 30 million Americans browsing the latest and greatest products in Radio Shack's catalogs.

The race to dominate the burgeoning personal computer market in the early 1980s forced hardware and software manufacturers to address consumer technophobia with familiar faces: talk show host Dick Cavett shilled for IBM; Alan Alda spoke for Atari in a deal said to be worth $10 million; Bruce Jenner endorsed Activision. Of Roger Moore being seen in ads for Spectravideo PCs, company spokesman Bob Griffin said, “Because he’s playing James Bond, he has universal association with high tech.”

Radio Shack, the then-popular electronics chain and a subsidiary of Tandy, flinched at playing the celebrity game, avoiding recognizable personalities in television ads. They could afford to take a more conservative approach: The TRS-80 was the best-selling personal computer of 1980, moving more than 200,000 units.

The following year, however, would be a crucial one for the company. New models of the TRS-80 were due, including budget entries, a color-screen version, and a pocket-sized model. Coincidentally, they had recently loaned well-known “futurist” Asimov one of their high-end Model II units (priced at $3499) so the author could write a story on the new wave of word processing software for Byte magazine.

Asimov later wrote that he resolved his wariness over adopting a new way of working because he had a personal tutor: The Radio Shack employee who followed up with the equipment delivery taught him about the unit, its pinwheel printer, and the Scripsit word processing software. By the end of 1981, he was adept enough at it to agree to endorse Tandy’s products in an “open-ended” contract. He claimed their pocket PC closely resembled the technology he had written about in his 1951 work, Foundation.

Fearing something might go awry, Asimov never actually replaced his manual typewriter: He still used it for first drafts of novels, and would re-type subsequent drafts into Scripsit, which he also used for correspondence and short pieces. Asimov was also in the habit of printing out virtually everything he wrote on the TRS, suspicious the 5.25-inch floppy disks might not be a reliable storage method.

He reserved most of his enthusiasm for the TRS-80 over correcting typos, having developed a tendency to mix up "seep," "seem," and "seen," and cursing the fact he often accidentally typed “t4he” into many manuscripts. In The Roving Mind, he wrote:

Staring at a page of type on the television screen, I find myself eagerly looking for typos so that I can have the fun of changing them. Bang goes the “F1” and the “u” and the “F2” and “cold” suddenly becomes “could” and no sign exists it was ever anything else….Then I have it printed – br-r-rp, br-r-rp, br-r-rp – and as each perfect page is formed, my heart swells with pride.

Radio Shack mailed out more than 30 million product catalogs in those days, with Asimov garnering the most responses of any of their pitchmen. (The company also used Incredible Hulk star Bill Bixby.) Before his tenure was up in the mid-1980s, Asimov even extended his mutton-chopped profile to their stereo equipment.

Owing to Scripsit’s interface, Asimov believed he shaved an estimated 15 minutes off the time it would’ve taken him to write a magazine feature on his typewriter. The prolific author of more than 500 books speculated he probably wasn’t going to get any more efficient than that. “I am a one-man book of the month club,” he wrote. “How far can I speed up beyond that? In fact, who in the world would want me to?”