Every now and then some website or comic YouTuber talks about the Tandy Computer Whiz Kids, formerly the TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids until Radio Shack decided to expand their scope as an advertisement from more than just their “microcomputers”. Whether teaming with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Supergirl, fighting terrorists, drug dealers, and kidnappers the adventures of Alec and Shanna both with and without their Radio Shack wondergadgets are well known in certain circles. However, maybe because they lack crazy adventures, nobody really talks about the other comic line produced by Radio Shack in the 1980s.
The Science Fair Story Of Electronics was less about promoting the brand name electronic test kits, though ads were present, and more about being a history of technology, a reference comic for kids. There’s no story but there is a framing device with a teacher discussing this stuff with her students, though really it’s just an excuse to have kids asking questions. What you really have is a reference periodical with a few comic panels tossed in.
I happen to own two of these “comics”, The Discovery That Changed The World (a title that seems to have been reused a few times), and Science Exploration!, both of which start with the US space program at the time and then go into other scientific endeavors that actually had Science Fair kits you could mess with. I’m going to take a brief look at both of these to see why nobody talks about them. I’m betting the lack of crimefighting.
Writing credits on both comics are given to William (or Bill in the second) Palmer. The first book, produced for Fall-Winter 1981/Spring 1982, only had the art credit as J&R Weathers/Designers out of Chicago. The second book, the Fall 1986/Spring 1987 edition, gives Jim Weathers as the artist. Also, the teacher is just named “Teacher” in the first book, and I have never heard any kid in real life simply refer to their teacher as “teacher”. The second book does give her the name “Ms. Smith”, and some of the kids have names. As mentioned, they’re just there to ask questions to add some life to the text. Now let’s take a brief look at each book.
The Discovery That Changed The World!
The book opens discussing the recent first launch of the space shuttle Columbia before going into a discussion of future plans, like a space station that holds 500 workers, a motel, and a cafeteria, with the shuttle being used to bring people and supplies to and from Earth. In late 2021 that’s both cute and disappointing when you realize all we have is some floating space lab with probably less people than these kids’ classroom…and it looks like a very small classroom compared to Ms. Wilson’s class. The design is something out of science fiction, which as of 21 years after her prediction it still is.
Then it goes into a brief discussion of satellites and how they were being used to look at Halley’s Comet, various planets, and the launch of the first space telescope. It’s not until page 5 that we finally see Teacher and her class, and they rarely show up in the comic. She starts talking about NASA’s work leading to advances in solar power before getting into the history of solar power itself. Admittedly the comic does a good job transitioning to the various lessons, from here to power lines and searching for energy resources, and then to the history of electronics itself. If Teacher can’t make the transition herself, Palmer uses her students to do so by asking a question that makes the bridge for her. Credit where it’s due, that’s some good writing.
Teacher starts by talking about electricity itself before going a bit into electronics, and segueing into telephones, and then getting better in her future predictions. She talks about short-circuit TV allowing patients to see talk to their doctors or specialists to people far away, which now we have apps on our phone that can do that. Then she drops back into electronics, even giving the origin of the name “Radio Shack”, the room where the wireless radio on ships were set up. Teacher also uses a student named Bob to transition to discussing sound with radios and later sound in movies, and here’s the flaw. Bob must be a smart kid (they seem maybe a class younger than Alec and Shanna’s class, and the comics kept insisting they were in elementary school while acting more like middle schoolers) to know about audion radio tubes created in 1915. The kids don’t really talk like normal kids. They’re just an extra method to smoothly transition to the next topic and this is a lot of topics for one class session.
This leads to talking about television, which leads to shilling the TRS-80 in micro and pocket form, and some talk about freedom and connecting the early explorers to the space program…which would be all but abandoned until recently when a bunch of rich guys decided to build their own ships and send celebrities and themselves into outer space for five minutes. Yeah, it’s kind of sad seeing the hopes for the space program not living up to where we are today.
Story Of Electronics and Space Exploration
This one actually starts with our teacher welcoming the kids back to school for the new year. This is often a joke in the Computer Whiz Kids reviews, especially by Linkara on Atop The Fourth Wall but it works a bit better here because we don’t know these kids. Also you have to remember how often these comics were released…annually. So each comic could essentially start at the new year, with Ms. Wilson just following them up a grade because that’s how it works in fictional schools so they have the same actor as the teacher each year. As mentioned, we finally have a name for Teacher, and Ms. Smith jumps right into talking about space exploration. I’m guessing she’s the science teacher so this has to be middle or high school. Again, looking at the kids I’m going to say middle school, but they’re around the same age as Alec and Shanna, which we’re always told are elementary school students. Did they repeat the fourth grade so they could keep playing with the Tandy color computers? Also, a terrorist leader was tackled by fourth graders? Yeah, we’ll get into that when the Computer Whiz Kids show up in “Yesterday’s” Comic. Let’s get back to Ms. Smith’s class.
As she starts talking about spaceflight she brings up the Challenger explosion frim January, 1986 and mentions 248 men flying home for Christmas who apparently crashed. Admittedly this story I’m not as familiar with. Then she mentions car accidents before starting to discuss Christopher Columbus and the fate of the Santa Maria. Basically she starts off discussing various aeronautic disasters before going into successes and imagining that spaceplane we never really got but still get teased now and then. A lot of this comic then becomes mild expansions on things discussed in the previous book, and even recycles one scene complete with dialog and just redrawing the kids, with the line “That’s neat, Ms. Jones…but how did electronics begin, and how long ago was it? We’d like to know.” Again, nobody talks like these kids do, and they still call her…wait, she was Teacher in the first book, opened being called Ms. Smith on the first page of this one, and in this dialog Charles says the exact same dialog as Jim from the other comic and calls her “Ms. Jones”. Somebody was not paying attention to their own writing. The rest is pretty much a better drawn version of the previous comic and a different takeaway ending.
I can see why kids might not get into this. It’s more like a magazine with a few comic panels put in. It’s basically for the nerdier kids, and I guess that’s who would be buying the Science Fair kits in the first place. Portions of these comics would also end up as filler in later issues of Tandy Computer Whiz Kids so if you’ve seen those you’ve seen a shorter version of these comics. The art is fine, the transitions between topics work, though the kids’ dialog seems very un-kidlike. Overall they’re interesting windows into the past but not something I’d be drawn to track down further issues of. If you want to check them out, Radio Shack Catalogs has a number of issues (I don’t know if they’re all there) on their website, at least as of this writing. They also have the spin-off History Of Electronics and a special Archie And The History Of Electronics, though I’ll be surprised if Archie and the gang have as exciting an adventure as Alec and Shanna. Speaking of which, they also have the full TRS-80/Tandy Computer Whiz Kids series, so you’ll be able to follow along with those…just as soon as a series slot opens in “Yesterday’s” Comic. So that’s one way to have your historical curiosity satisfied.