John Roach, pioneer of the personal computer, dies at 83

John Roach, a marketing visionary who helped make the home computer ubiquitous in the late 1970s by introducing the fully assembled Tandy TRS-80 through RadioShack chains for $599.95 or less, died Sunday in Fort worth He was 83.

His death in hospital was confirmed by his wife Jean Roach. No reason was given.

Mr. Roach had collegiate experience handling refrigerator-sized mainframes back in 1967 when he joined Tandy Corporation, a Texas conglomerate founded as a leather goods company that included RadioShack and its thousands of electronics Fargo franchises.

He was instrumental in getting Tandy to venture into the computer market. At the time, most small computers were sold as kits to be assembled by hobbyists, but Mr. Roach believed consumers would welcome a model that they only had to plug in.

His team presented the original TRS-80 prototype—cobbled together from a black-and-white RCA monitor, keyboard, and tape recorder—in January 1977 to Tandy’s CEO, Charles Tandy, and Lewis Kornfeld, President of RadioShack.

The Apple 1 had been introduced the year before, and Commodore and other companies were marketing their own home computers, but the TRS-80 (the initials stood for Tandy RadioShack) quickly became the most popular computer on the market.

“Charles blew a little smoke and said, ‘Build a thousand and if we can’t sell them, we’ll use them for something in the shop,'” Mr Roach recalled in a remark to the Fort Worth Executive Roundtable Last month.

“We were finally able to ship some machines in September and shipped 5,000 this year, all we could put together,” said Mr. Roach. “Our competitors didn’t deliver any.”

At just under $600 (about $2,700 in today’s dollars), the computer was relatively cheap ($399 when connected to a separate display). It was available in all of the company’s 8,000 stores.

Tandy recruited Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the future founders of Microsoft, to write exclusive software for personal, home, small business, and gaming use. In 1982, to promote sales of computers and modems, Mr. Roach persuaded The Star-Telegram of Fort Worth to become one of the first newspapers in the country to go online.

The TRS-80 was considered so novel that a model was later acquired for the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

John Vinson Roach II was born on November 22, 1938 in Stamford, a rural farming community of several thousand people in west Texas. His mother, Agnes Margaret (Hanson) Roach, was a nurse. His father owned a meat market that closed due to rationing during World War II, and the family moved to Fort Worth, where he opened a grocery store.

Young John, a math genius, calculated change at his father’s grocery store without using the cash register. He worked his way through high school unloading boxcars for retailers in Montgomery Ward.

He graduated from Texas Christian University in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and then worked for two years at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii before returning to university, where he received a master’s degree in 1965 earned a degree in business administration.

When Mr. Roach joined Tandy Corporation as a data processing manager, he was said in an interview with the university in 2007, “neither the concept nor the thought of a personal computer was even imagined”.

The TRS-80 sales boom came just in time to revitalize Tandy, which had taken a tumble after the popularity of two-way citizen band radios waned. After Mr. Tandy died in 1978, Mr. Roach became Executive Vice President of RadioShack. In 1980 he was appointed Chief Operating Officer.

Tandy’s early dominance would wane as competitors developed models that were equally inexpensive or offered greater speeds and greater functionality. By 1991, the company’s share of the home computer market had shrunk to 3.5 percent; In 1981 it was even 40 percent.

In the 1990s, when the conglomerate employed 37,500 people and reported annual sales of $4.3 billion, Mr. Roach attempted to reposition RadioShack more broadly as “The Technology Store.”

In 1999 he retired as chief executive and chairman of Tandy, positions he had held since 1983.

Tandy changed its name to RadioShack in 2000 and overcame cut-throat competition to continue as an e-commerce site and franchise with the slogan “Shack is back”.

During the 1990s, Mr. Roach served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Texas Christian University and helped double the endowment’s assets to over $1 billion, build a technology center, and play a supportive role in Fort Worth’s civic and cultural life . In 2007, the John V. Roach Honors College at TCU was donated in his honor by his friends Paul and Judy Andrews of Fort Worth.

“He was able to combine intelligence with judgment,” J. Luther King Jr., his friend and successor as CEO, said in an interview. Mr. Roach, he added, has managed to convert the university from “a regional university to a national university”.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Roach is survived by his two daughters, Amy Roach Bailey and Lori Roach Davis; six grandchildren; and a great granddaughter.

Mr. Roach has been comfortable with computers personally and professionally since his college days. Shortly before his death, his family said he FaceTimed with his grandchildren and watched as TCU defeated Seton Hall in the NCAA basketball tournament online. John Roach, pioneer of the personal computer, dies at 83

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