Introduced August 1982
By 1982 the home computer market in the UK was getting quite sophisticated with the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 all competing for attention. To compete with these three extremely capable systems you were going to need something very good indeed. The Dragon 32 was not that computer. Not by a long chalk. Yet somehow it managed to carve out a fairly respectable slice of the market for a couple of years, and it all started so promisingly.
British toy firm Mettoy – manufacturer of Corgi Toys – had spotted that children were becoming increasingly interested in computers and decided to enter the market, creating a factory in Wales to build the Dragon. Mettoy knew a lot about marketing and distribution, and in particular it understood export markets. However, Mettoy got into technical difficulties and the Dragon Data business ended up under the control of the industrial giant GEC.
The Dragon 32 itself was based on a Motorola reference design and used their 6809E processor, rather than the more common Zilog Z80 or MOS 6502s that rivals used. The dragon wasn’t the only machine built to the same basic design – the TRS-80 Color Computer (CoCo) launched in the US two years earlier was very similar and was somewhat compatible when it came to software.
Making a sort-of-clone of a two-year old computer in 1982 – when technology was moving at a breath-taking rate – may not have been a great start, but the 6809E was a capable CPU, the machine was very well built and you could connect up joysticks, a printer and a decent monitor. RAM was 32KB, a so-so amount for the time (a later 64KB version, the Dragon 64 was launched not long after) and it had simple sound capabilities. The inbuilt Microsoft BASIC was pretty good to program, which was one of the main things people liked to do in those days. Software could be ported across from the CoCo with a few modifications.
|Dragon 64 in use|
On the more negative side – the graphics were terrible, especially when it came to the colour palettes. The Dragon was also incapable of displaying lowercase characters without modification, which limited its appeal as an educational or business computer, and you couldn’t easily mix text and graphics at the same time. Although the Dragon 32 was popular enough to have many best-selling games titles ported to it, the poor graphics meant that they didn’t look as good as games played on rival machines.
Overall it wasn’t a bad system, but it was up against more capable competition. It might have been a contender but by 1983 the home computer market was imploding, with an oversupply of systems, brutal price wars and a fragmented array of available systems that frankly needed shaking out. Dragon Data was one of the victims, going bust in 1984, but the assets being bought up by a Spanish company named Eurohard which sold the product line until 1987, when it too went bust.
Despite market failures, the Dragon 32 retains a following in the hobbyist market with many additional modifications including improved operating systems and peripherals, including modern add-ons such as memory card readers in lieu of tape or disk drives. Working systems can command prices in of a few hundred pounds, depending on condition and accessories.
Liftarn / Pixel8 via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0
Rain Rabbit via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0