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back to article The Dragon 32 is 30

The Dragon 32, arguably the best-known and most-successful of the UK's early 1980s home computer also-rans, was introduced 30 years ago this month. The micro's story goes back more than a year before its launch. Tony Clarke, a senior manager at Swansea-based toy company Mettoy - best known for its Corgi die-cast metal car brand …

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Happy

You've made a happy woman feel very old

This machine is where it started for me. If it hadn't been the Dragon then it would have been something else, but this was the first machine on which I cut any code of any sort, for which reason I feel very kindly inclined to it.

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Joke

Re: You've made a happy woman feel very old

'The Girl With The Dragon Thirty-Two', eh?

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Re: You've made a happy woman feel very old

I only wish that you could hear the wild applause from my desk.

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Happy

You always remember your first...

I persuaded my parents to buy one to help with computer studies at school. And then, like probably most other kids, spent 80% of the time playing games with some coding in-between.

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Sigh...

All the computers I lusted after in my teens... having cut my teeth on the MK14, the ZX80, and the Microtan, I never got around to a computer in a proper box with a real keyboard that I didn't make myself!

It's good to see them again, even if I never got around to buying them at the time.

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So is My Son

1 Week before my son was born in November 1982 I purchased one of these.

I had to travel all the way to London from Weymouth on the train as there were no stockists anywhere near Dorset.

I started by religiously typing in program listings from magazines, I soon learnt debugging!

All those syntax errors...

When my wife returned home 1 week later I thought I would impress her with "Press the space bar dear".

It ran a simple program that looped "Welcome Home" in random (blocky) colours. "Oh is that all it does" says she :-(

I went on to write a number of games that I sold via the user Mags.

Suffice to say I still have my Dragon Computer the wifely Dragon is no more.

I am now thinking about retiring from my job in computing and digging the Dragon out of the loft to get back to some Basic coding....

Ahhh, those were the days.

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Happy

Missed opportunity.

One of its major problems was that, when on display along with other machines in a shop, it's "window in the middle of the telly" display looked a bit shonky compared to other offerings.

There was an answer. There was a product from a small software company (Oasis????) that gave it a full-screen display, better graphics, fonts and upper / lower case. Didn't use much memory too. I can't help thinking what might have been had DD aquired this and included it in ROM.

Might go and fish mine out of the garage tonight and fire it up in celebration. Maybe I'll pull the case and see what board number's in mine, I'd never thought to check before.

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Re: Missed opportunity.

I'm not sure it always looked bad displayed next to other machines in a shop. Boots(*) used to have a ZX81, a Speccy and a Dragon. Since they never loaded any software on them and just left them on the startup screen the Dragon was usually the only one with any colour on its display. Their setup also emphasised the merits of a proper keyboard - the ZX81 had a very severely dented break 'key' from being pressed too hard (it didn't work very well even before it got dented).

I'm also not sure that the "window in the middle" was necessarily a bad idea in the days of goldfish bowl TVs either (back when rounded corners were a bad thing).

(*) P.S. Thanks for confirming my memories el-reg. Its been so long I was starting to wonder if my memories of the 'lotions and potions' retailer selling computers was made up, its so different from what they normally sell.

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Re: Boots

I bought my copy of Elite for the BBC B from Boots, you're right, it does seem bonkers looking back.

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Re: Missed opportunity.

> looked a bit shonky compared to other offerings.

You're right; in particular, the lack of lower-case made it look more like a ZX81 and less like a BBC.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Missed opportunity.

"I was starting to wonder if my memories of the 'lotions and potions' retailer selling computers was made up, its so different from what they normally sell."

Boots used to sell a lot wider range of products in general back then. My local branch (e.g.) also had a good range of both blank and pre-recorded cassettes in the early 80s, alongside more photo stuff (e.g. gimmicky camera filters I thought looked cool but couldn't afford nor use with my Instamatic(!))

My Dad even used to buy his home brew kits (i.e. beer not software!) and equipment there too- I'm sure they were still selling that well into the nineties. They even had their own-brand equipment(!).

They even sold homeware and electronics like TVs and hifis. In fact, looking back, they were almost like a mini department store back then.

This was all before we had a local Jessops, Virgin Megastore and HMV though, and (e.g.) Boots music range slowly degenerated to a single pitiful rack of CDs before disappearing. I guess they were eventually outcompeted by those more specialist stores and decided to focus on their core business.

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Re: Missed opportunity.

Bootsdid indeed sell allt hat stuff and had a manufacturing arm but it was sold off, my cousin works for the part that was sold off and I can never remember it's name.

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Re: Missed opportunity.

I remember all these things. I bought a couple of Boots cassette personal stereos. My first personal CD player was a Boots-Branded mini hi-fi (that I still have, though the tape-deck's broken) that my parents bought me. Dad also got his homebrew kits in Boots. I used to get the odd album and VHS from them. I remember saving up loads of money for Star Trek: Generations on VHS because I hadn't seen it at the cinema. Then I watched it, once.

Anyway, I used to love hanging round the computers and pressing buttons on them while my mother was elsewhere in the store.

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Pint

Re: Missed opportunity.

All of the problems with text mode limitations, and poor availability of colours were down to the choice of the Motorola reference design chipset. The VDG chip was perfectly capable, but limited in terms of text mode display and graphics mode colour schemes.

No amount of ROM tweaks could really fix that, although it was possible to achieve a 52 x 21 text display with lowercase by hooking new hi-res graphics mode based printing.

The add on board (from Premier Microsystems, I seem to remember) supplied an entirely new graphics generator chip. If Dragon Data had done that initially they might have had a better machine, but with far less game software from the CoCo available from the word go.

A tricky one.

Short of the BBC though, the Dragon was certainly the most 'serious' UK home computer of the era. Powerful processor, powerful basic, serious software options (OS-9, with C, Basic 09, PASCAL).

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Anonymous Coward

August 1982 was the C64 launch date too, but that's not British I guess.

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(Written by Reg staff)

http://www.reghardware.com/2012/01/02/commodore_64_30_birthday/

We've already done it.

BTW, it also took a long time to arrive over here, despite coming so long after the US launch, in December 1981. I know, I was gagging for one, but the advance order failed to materialise, so I got a Dragon instead. Not as advanced a machine, but I can't say it ever held me back.

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@Tony Smith

But you haven't, as far as I can tell, done the Acorn Atom, which must pre-date both. I consider my Atom changed my life.

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Anonymous Coward

My First Computer Too

Got one of these when I was 11 years old and taught myself assembly on it. Great processor to program the 6809E, much better than the 6502 as it had proper 16bit index registers.

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Happy

My second micro...

I had one of these way back when...

During launch week, unemployed as I was, I spent a lot of time in the local Boots store where I quite happily explained to potential purchasers the differences between the Dragon and the Spectrum et al. Despite helping them to sell loads, they offered me no discount nor a job, so I bought mine elsewhere a few weeks later.

Eventually I added a floppy drive to mine and transferred my games tapes to run from disk.

After many years of faithful service it was put into the loft. When retrieved about 10 years ago I discovered that it no longer powered up. The PSU was fine, the cables were fine, but the mobo had died quietly in its sleep.

Such an ignominious end to a fine machine.

Snigger joke warning - You could have SEX with a Dragon but not with a Spectrum. SEX was the nmemonic motorola introduced to extend the sign bit of a byte from 8 bits to 16 bits - Sign EXtend.

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Re: My second micro...

It might be worth trying it again, Dragons sometimes look dead when they're only sleeping - I had three which had been in the loft for years because it they died. Years later I decided to see if I could make one good one out of the three dead ones - one of them had somehow ressurected itself in storage.

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The Weetabix ad

Do I see Despicable Me's minions on that box?

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Re: The Weetabix ad

IIRC that's the Munch Bunch.

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Re: The Weetabix ad

'Skin head' Weetabix probably wasn't Weetabix marketing's finest hour...

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Facepalm

Re: The Munch Bunch

No, Munch Bunch were on yoghurts.

The Weetabix crew were Dunk, Crunch, Brains, Brian and Bixie - some of us had all the badges!

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Re: The Weetabix ad

At one time the skinhead style and skinheads were about racial harmony until the look was taken over by the fascists. Ska and Reggae bands lament this hi-jacking even now.

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Happy

Re: The Weetabix ad

It's ironic that an advert for an advanced (at the time) home computer appears to have been created by a graphic designer who was still doing everything by hand. I wish I could get away with submitting final designs coloured with marker pens.

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Still have mine in the loft

1983 was an amazing year in the UK home computer business. There were loads of new machines battling it out. I bought my Dragon in Colchester and carried it home on the back of my bicycle. I really wanted a BBC B but could only afford £200. The 6809 CPU was beautiful to program because it used position independent machine code. It was a baby 68000.

However it would have been nice if they had included the Teletext graphics chip as per the BBC micro because this gives the clearest text on a TV screen. It was the high cost of disk drives which really prevented home computers being useful in business. Who has time to wait for tape to load?

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Headmaster

Re: Still have mine in the loft

High cost of disks - This is of course why Sir Clive invented the Microdrive. Although people took the piss and there were teething troubles, the later units were remarkably reliable to the point where people are still recovering data from cartridges all these years later.

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Re: Microdrives

Microdrives were incorporated into the OPD and were indeed pretty reliable - dug one out of an old, dusty storebox in 1999 and it was still able to load Snake.

"My secretary is on my extension. He. He. He."

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Re: Microdrives

I still have some OPD microdrive cartridges in one of the fire safes at work. There was a small handful of OPDs when I started in 91. Keep hoping one might turn up one day. I will be bound to get the call if one does, if only for my colleagues to take the piss out of how long I have worked there!

Never had a Dragon. Was a Sinclair fan myself, but absolutely love these articles. fasinating reading

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Boffin

Any port in a storm?

I find it interesting that the Dragon 32 used the C64's 9-pin joystick connector for its power supply, and 6-pin circular connectors like those of the C64's PSU for its joysticks.

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Re: Any port in a storm?

I suspect the round vs 9-pin choice for the joystick port was to stop people trying to use switching joysticks from other systems instead of the analogue ones it was designed for. At the time the choice of analogue seemed odd , but in hindsight it may just have been ahead of its time.

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Keyboard

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the keyboard, which was "guaranteed for 20 million keypresses", or something very similar! I never had one, but a friend did, and that keyboard was a revelation compared to our ZX81.

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Where's then time gone?

A hard choiced to be made back then: Acorn, Sinclair, Commodore, Dragon, Camputers........Decided on the Lynx myself. Always amazed at how much Level 9 managed to squeeze into their adventures on that machine. So made the jump from basic to machine code.

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More fond memories

My final year degree project was building a hardware terminal emulator board for the Dragon 32.

It emulated a Wyse terminal with RS232 connectivity.

The idea was the Dragon could be used for teaching programming as well as accessing the college Harris mainframe, unlike the expensive dumb terminals.

The devs at Dragon were very helpful with coding when I hit some issues with the inbuilt procedure calls.

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Harris mainframe

You were at Coventry Lanchester Poly, and I claim my prize.

-A.

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Re: Harris mainframe

Give yourself a Lanch star. ;-)

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Happy

Duncan Smeed

Without wanting to embarrass him or give him a big head I've got to say Duncan was the best lecturer I had at uni. Whilst the dragon32 was before my time his ancedotes about it's design and his enthusiam were always entertaining. His Computer Architecture and Design class was insightful and a major reason for me seeking a career in the semiconductor industry.

Happy Birthday Dragon32

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Re: Duncan Smeed

I'm embarrassed ;)

Many thanks for the kind words Chris. Best wishes for the career.

Cheers,

Duncan

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Re: Duncan Smeed

I too was taught by Mr Smeed at Strathclyde. I have fond memories of the microprocessor development lab. 6809 cross-assembler on a PDP-11/34 and 11/44. When there was a full class it would take 5-10 mins to assemble and download the binaries to your development system. But it was worth it to see your creations come alive via the attached terminals and I/O devices. Even though I was a Sinclair man (and thus Z-80 by default), the 6809 was my fave 8-bit micro by a long way.

I learnt structured programming with Dr Kingslake through Pascal on a PET in the Livingstone Tower, and later wrote up my final year project on the newly-acquired QLs in the same lab. I may even have the MicroDrive cartridge still in my possession.

Good times. Still working in the low-level world of bits and bytes, shift instructions and cycle times 25 years down the line.

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Re: Duncan Smeed

Hi Xtramural,

I remember talking about learning 6809 machine code on the Dragon to my PhD supervisor, Doug Shepherd (RIP). To my amazement he mentioned he'd written the keyboard handler for it. Did he have anything to do with it?

Cheers

Phillip

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Re: Duncan Smeed

Hi Phillip,

Doug was a colleague and friend at Strathclyde at the time and he is the person that had the original contact with Motorola (East Kilbride). He and I will have discussed the design and implementation of the BIOS in the early days although I, ultimately, wrote the final BIOS code, flew to Seattle to meet with the Microsoft BASIC guys and badger them for their final deliverable, integrated this into the ROM image and produced the final ROM code (with my hand-patched 'Easer Egg' initials).

Doug was a great colleague and one of my lecturers when I was a student. The most memorable thing he ever told me was his advice for being a good lecturer and that was "a good lecture is 90% entertainment and 10% content!". He went on to great things at Lancaster - as you know.

Cheers,

Duncan

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Re: Duncan Smeed

Hi Allan (I presume!),

Ah! Those were the days!! I have fond memories of the 6809 dev kit we used to use and the I/O box - 7-segment display and speech synthesis chip - that were used for the experiments in 6809 assembler and interfacing.

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You should have waited 2 years...

... then the headline would be "The Dragon 32 is 32" :-)

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The video chip was the problem

The 6847 was, to put not too fine a point on it, rubbish. It only supported a 32 x 16 array of characters, in upper case only, plus a couple of fairly low res bit mapped video modes. You could use if with a 6502 (Acorn did just that with the Atom), but 6502 based hardware had moved on to ASIC video by then (the C64's VIC chip for example, or the BBC Micro's video chip). Other than that and the price it wasn't a bad machine for the time.

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Re: The video chip was the problem

Resolution wasn't so much the problem as the strange colours (and only 4 at a time). Some games I prefered to black and white as a result. I guess it prepared me well for my first PC with its CGA display.

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Anonymous Coward

The BBC has "C64 is 30" and...

...el Reg has the Dragon 32.

Strange beasts the Dragon was, only one of my school chums had one - everyone else was pretty much Sinclair or Commodore rivals.... seem to remember one looser with an Oric though too.

I'm sure my words there mean something to my generation - we were fanbois long before the word was invented :)

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Re: The BBC has "C64 is 30" and...

looser than what?

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Re: The BBC has "C64 is 30" and...

loser.

Or was it a joke I didn't get?!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The BBC has "C64 is 30" and...

The Dragon managed 2nd place at my school. Commodores were never very popular (even in the later ST vs Amiga days). I think it had something to do with someone comming up with the nickname 'Commode'. Us Dragon owners were still in a minority compared to the speccy though - but still managed better games collections than the Atari 2600 owners due to being able to copy tapes rather than swap cartridges.

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