Obituary: Lewis Kornfeld / Made Radio Shack an early player in PCs

July 31, 1916-Aug. 11, 2013

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Lewis Kornfeld, who as president of Radio Shack helped the company become a major player in the early personal computer market in 1977 by releasing the TRS-80, one of the first mass-market and relatively affordable computers, died Sunday in Fort Worth, Texas. He was 97.

The cause was complications of lymphocytic leukemia, his wife, Rose Ann Kornfeld, said.

When Radio Shack unveiled the TRS-80, personal computers mainly came in kits for users to cobble together. Mr. Kornfeld presented a finished product they could just plug in and use.

The market for home computers was virtually untested at the time, but Mr. Kornfeld prided himself on having recognized their potential.

"Nobody had a personal computer," Mr. Kornfeld told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2006. "I didn't know about them. I walk into a buyer's office, and I see him using a cathode ray tube screen and a typewriter keyboard. I said, 'You let me know when I can play chess on it, and if it will, I'm going to put the damned thing in our line.' "

The TRS-80's CPU was contained in its keyboard. It used a cassette deck to load and save data and came with a 12-inch monitor. The computer had four kilobytes of memory, the equivalent of about two double-spaced, typed pages. It retailed for $600 (about $2,300 in today's dollars). Comparable computers released in 1977, like the Apple II and the Commodore PET, cost from $200 to more than $1,000.

The TRS-80 was an immediate hit. The Tandy Corp., Radio Shack's parent company then, initially planned to manufacture about 1,000 of the computers, but by the end of the year, 5,000 had been delivered.

By 1983, computers and accessories were Tandy's biggest sellers. That year the company released the TRS-80 Model 100, one of the earliest portable computers. Priced at $800, it could run on four AA batteries.

IBM broke into the market with its own PC in 1981, and by the late '80s Tandy had stopped manufacturing its own computers and begun stocking IBMs in Radio Shack stores.

Lewis F. Kornfeld Jr. (he used a middle initial even though he did not have a middle name) was born in Boston on July 31, 1916. He received degrees in English and journalism from the University of Denver and served in the Pacific with the Marines in World War II.

Mr. Kornfeld became Radio Shack's advertising manager in 1948, when the company had only one store in Boston. In 1963 the Tandy Corp. acquired what had become the Radio Shack chain.

He became its president in 1970 and retired in 1981, when Radio Shack had more than 7,000 locations. He wrote "To Catch a Mouse Make a Noise Like a Cheese," a book on small-business marketing, published in 1983.

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