The next generation
Smeed worked on the Alpha, which was the focus of Dragon Data's small but eager R&D team - which included Jan Wojna, Andy Cash, John Linney and others - put in place early in 1983. The decision to use two processors arose because Motorola had more 6809Es than Dragon could buy. He and his team used one of the two CPUs as a DMA controller to speed up the machine's disk performance, essential for the I/O-dependent OS-9, from Microware, it was set to use.
The Dragon hacker's bible
None of these machines made it to market, though GEC did begin pitching the Professional to the computer press for review coverage, saying a single-disk version would ship for £699, the two-disk model for £849. Reviews published around revealed that the machine was not ready for sale: it ran very hot and was rather temperamental - probably due to the heat.
In May 1984, GEC Dragon called in the receivers, blaming "the continuing difficulties of establishing profitable trading in the UK and other parts of the world".
The writing had been on the wall: 1982's Dragon 32, even upgraded to 64KB, had not fared well during Christmas 1983, going up now against cheaper machines, including the low-cost BBC Micro-compatible Acorn Electron, and even cheaper 48KB Spectrum and the 1983-released Oric 1. Early sales success led to over-optimistic projections of the numbers of Dragons that could be sold in subsequent years. Supply outstripped demand.
Boots, one of the first major retailers to take on the Dragon, indicated in the spring of 1984 that it would stop selling the machine. British Home Stores, another early supporter, had actually gone ahead and done so.
Potential buyers lined up, among them Philips, GEC itself and - ironically - Tandy. In the end, a deal with Spain's Eurohard was brokered which would see the Spanish firm acquire all of the GEC Dragon's assets, with GEC handling UK sales and marketing, and a new firm, Touchmaster, handling after-sales support and peripheral sales. Touchmaster was run by GEC Dragon's management and backed by Pru-Tech.
Duncan Smeed and a number of Dragon's R&D team joined the company's Technical Director, Derek Williams, and together went to Thorn EMI to work on a mobile computer, the Liberator.
Even Weetabix couldn't save Dragon
Meanwhile, Eurohard promised much, but failed to revive the Dragon's fortunes. It sold too few of the stock acquired in the GEC Dragon firesale to fund the ambitious expansion plans it discussed with journalists and Dragon fans. Its demise was drawn out, but certain.
Time had left the Dragon behind. Christmas 1984 would prove very tough for almost every micro maker. The microcomputer boom was over. The kids had their computers; adults were now after the next big thing, CD players. Even giants like Acorn and Sinclair struggled to stay clear of the wreckage. Dragon Data would have surely been crushed had it survived that long. ®
The author would like to thank the many retro-tech fans for archiving home computing adverts, photos and documentation from the 1980s and 1990s, without whom this feature would not be possible. Special thanks go to Duncan Smeed, Richard Harding of DragonData.co.uk and Simon Hardy of World of Dragon for their invaluable help.
Re: You've made a happy woman feel very old
'The Girl With The Dragon Thirty-Two', eh?
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.
Memories of the Project Leader
I was the project leader for the Dragon 32 at PAT, or Patcentre as is was then known. I thought you might like to know what I remember of that time.
I remember spending a lot of time talking to a really helpful Motorola chip salesman called Robin Saxby. Yes, the same guy who later ran ARM and is now Sir Robin.
We certianly did not copy the CoCo. It was not really available in the UK because it had an NTSC video system which would not work on UK TVs in those days. The Motorola application for the SAM chip (synchronous address multiplxer) showed a complete home computer to which the CoCo was identical. We made numerous improvements to this app note. We included a real A/D and D/A convertors for generating the FSK signals used to store programs on tape. We added a parallel printer port and used the same chip to scan the keyboard. We had a separate power supply PCB which also contained the TV modulator. It was a single sided PCB so it saved cost but also allowed variants to different TV standards to be made cost effectively. We made a SECAM variant for France and also an RGB and US version.
I do not rmemeber Motorola suppying a BIOS. Microsoft wrote the Basic interpreter, which was essentially the same as the one they licensed to Tandy but with a few add-ons, but you were expected to create all your own peripheral drivers - a situation unchanged to this day. It was these drivers that Duncan (Smeed) wrote. I do not remeber the keyboard speed up being his alone. The nromal way to scan a key board is to activate a row and read the columns to see if a key has been pressed and repeat that for each row. Of course, most of the time there was no key pressed and this routine just wasted a lot of time getting a no key preessed result. We realised that becuase we had used the same chip to scan the keyboard as drive the parallel printer port, we could do one thing the CoCo could not, and that was activate all the rows at once. If you do this and then look at the columns, in one go you get to know if there are no keys pressed, the most common situation, and you can exit straight away. If you find a key has been pressed you scan as usual to find which one. This is what saved the time.
The PAL output had nothing to do with the CoCo. PAL was essntial for it to work on UK TVs. Few if any had SCART sockets so you had to create genuine PAL. Persuading a chip designed to make 525 line 60Hz NTSC to make 625 line 50Hz PAL instead is a non trivial exercise and needed a lot of descrete logic - ASICs were in their infancy then.
Two weeks before the official launch, the Spectrun 16K came out. The piggy back RAM PCB was designed, tested and ramped up for production in that two weeks. Later we used a bunch of Siemens 32K RAM chips that consisted of two 16K RAM chips literally piggy backed on eachother and later still upgraded the main PCB to 32K then 64K.
We then worked on the disk drive unit which was abandoned when Tony Clarke left and all development work went in house. What is probably not well known is that at the same time we were working on the successor to the Dragon, code named Draconis. This used a Motorola 68K processor and a very powerful graphics chip from NEC. Along with OS/9 as a true real time executive, this would have beaten the PC hands down as a business machine. But for the vagaries of the home computer market, we might all be using Dragons today.