Helen Greiner, founder of iRobot, almost single-handedly started the home robotics revolution. Her company produced the sweeping robot, Roomba, and now makes the PackBot, a military robot that can defuse bombs and aid in rescue missions. But she never would have learnt to program without Radio Shack.
Many of us have been mourning the loss of Radio Shack, a venerable electronics hobbyist store that dates back to the early 20th century and recently succumbed to bankruptcy. Among its many other virtues, Radio Shack was a place where a young kid like Greiner could go with her dad to learn BASIC programming at a time when it wasn't taught in schools.
Greiner told Medium's Backchannel that when she became obsessed with creating a real-life R2D2, she decided to learn programming:
Then it dawned on me. I could make this happen. I could make robots just like R2-D2. That's when I decided that I wanted to be a pioneer in the field of robotics.
And so my education as a roboticist began. Slowly at first, with a TRS-80 computer that we had in the house. My dad and I took BASIC lessons at Radio Shack, and I learned how to store programs on the TRS-80's cassette drive. Believe it or not, that's how you stored your programs back then. But it was that cassette drive that showed me the connections between programming and mechanical elements — essential stepping stones in my robotics education.
I went to MIT and got a degree in mechanical engineering then a master's in electrical engineering and computer science.
From Radio Shack to MIT! And now Greiner will go down in robotics history. Where will robot-obsessed kids go today when they want to learn programming but their schools won't teach it to them?