Tuesday 8th February 2000   6:00pm
 
Technologies Time Forgot: The Dragon 32

 

Welsh splendour from the early 80s... iechyd dda!

The kids loved the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro, but Graham Hayday's memories of the Dragon 32 aren't quite so fond...

Christmas, 1983. I wanted a computer to play games on. My parents wanted a computer I could learn to program on.

The result: I ended up with a Dragon 32.

My mum and dad believed its keys were much more grown-up than the Spectrum's rubber horrors and it must therefore have been a far more serious machine.

And in one way they were right: the games on it were rubbish, but sadly for them this didn't propel me into a life of programming.

In fact I spent most of my time round at my mates' houses playing on their Spectrums and Commodore 64s. They could play Manic Miner in colour and everything - unlike Dragon 32 users.
The Dragon 32 hit the shelves in August 1982 (see www.imarshall.karoo.net/dragon_32.htm ) for a pictorial reminder of the dear old thing). It was made by a Welsh company called Dragon Data, which at the time was a subsidiary of toy outfit Mettoy.

Although the workings of the 32k machine bore a suspicious resemblance to a load of technology originally invented by Tandy (including the chipset, keyboard layout, cartridge connection and joystick ports), Dragon somehow avoided legal action and soon became Wales' favourite corporate son. It used a Motorola 6809 processor, which apparently did make life easy for programmers.

The company soon received a timely boost from its rivals: Acorn and even the mighty Sinclair were hit by supply problems, and, thanks to some heavy promotion by Boots the Chemist, Dragon 32s were flying off the shelves. A 'proper' computer for around 170: bargain.

Indeed, come spring 1983, over 40,000 units had been shipped from the factory in the Valleys (well, Port Talbot), making Dragon Data the largest privately held company in Wales.

I came across the Dragon while doing the weekly shop in the SavaCentre hypermarket outside Reading. I must confess I too was drawn to its chunky keys. I even worked out within minutes how to change the background colour and then managed to plot some orange and black squares in the middle of the screen a couple of weeks later. GOTO LINE 20... that's about all I can remember about my first programming effort - first and last effort in fact. But for the game player in me, at least this thing came with joysticks...

Ah yes, the joysticks. Within days of me excitedly pulling the strangely butterscotch-coloured unit from its squeaky polystyrene packaging, I'd bent one of them to a 70 degree angle. Most straws have more strength in them than the average Dragon joystick.

But as I say, I didn't really play games on it all that often. Horace Goes Skiing was an embarrassment. Manic Miner (in black and white) didn't have the gameplay of the Spectrum version (but at least I knew the cheat to get unlimited lives).

If anyone had attempted to write an athletics game which required the frenetic joystick waggling familiar to all Commodore users, then the future of the company would have been secured by the huge demand for replacement peripherals alone.

But sadly, its future was anything but secure. In fact its finances had been shaky from the word go. As early as December 1982, parent company Mettoy was in deep trouble, which forced Dragon Data into a refinancing exercise. It went independent and raised money from various sources, including the Welsh Development Agency, which ended up owning 23 per cent of the company.

Prutech - an investment arm of insurance giant the Prudential - owned a further 42 per cent, and arranged for a heavyweight former GEC executive to join the company. He came on board in summer '83 in the hope he could turn round its far from rosy fortunes.

He certainly tried. In August, the 225 Dragon 64 was launched in the US, and came to the UK in November. The more powerful machine was grey instead of butterscotch, no doubt signalling the company's intent to be seen as a manufacturer of serious computers.

There was even talk of a Dragon 128, but the UK was never to see such a beast. Despite healthy sales of the 64 model, the company was still stuck in the financial mire. GEC tried to take a stronger grip on the company by moving it even higher up the computing food chain, but that failed too.

In fact, in July 1984, things got so bad that Dragon Data filed for bankruptcy. GEC and Tandy both sniffed around its assets, but Eurohard, a Spanish company, snapped it up for a reputed 1m.

Eurohard talked a good talk. The bulk of production moved to Spain. Dragon 32s and 64s continued to sell well in their new home country France and Israel also had a minor love affair with the hardware.

Eurohard even attempted a BBC Micro-style educational push in Spain with the Dragon. It went on to release a touch-tablet machine under the Dragon brand (but that, cleverly, wasn't compatible with the Dragon itself). Rumours of the 128k monster continued to circulate for a while, but then things went strangely quiet. And remained that way...

For the second half of this article, click here:

From 1985 onwards, Eurohard slowly closed all of its Spanish operations. The retail numbers weren't quite as spectacular as the world had been led to believe.

By May 1987, all the factories were all shut.

The final nail in the coffin came in 1988, when Microdeal, which wrote more Dragon titles than any other software house, pulled out of the market altogether.

And that, misty eyed reader, was that.

My own Dragon is still around. It's up in my parents' loft, reminding them cruelly that their son didn't use it as they intended. I didn't become a programmer, and so am never likely to be able to keep them in a manner to which they aren't accustomed.

Despite the years of neglect, it still works: on a recent visit to my mum and dad's I dusted it off, plugged it into the TV, attached a rickety old cassette player to it, typed CLOADM, waited a few, long minutes for the tape to do its thing and lo: the opening page of Chuckie Egg popped up. I loved that game.

But in the end, Dragon's tale is one of lofty ambitions poorly executed. Its several owners misread the mass market (which wanted games, not easy-to-program machines) and also failed to become the 'serious' computer of choice: that accolade undoubtedly belonged to the BBC Micro, thanks to its brand and the cunning schools tie-up.

Nevertheless, Dragon gave us all a great story. Long may the remaining machines breathe fire.

This article couldn't have been written without the worrying devotion of a man called David Linsley, who has written more about the Dragon's history than you could shake a big stick at. If you go to mudhole.spodnet.uk.com/~dragon/history.htm you'll notice that most of the facts in this article have been shamelessly plagiarised from him.

A list of emulators and the like can be found at www.whom.co.uk/grundig/dragonhw.htm

And remember - if you have something to say about the Dragon 32 or the 1980s home computing boom add a Reader Comment below - or drop us an email at editorial@silicon.com with any Technology Time Forgot subjects you'd like to see us cover.