1982 - 1984 Dragon Data Ltd

From The Dragon Archive

September 1981

Mettoy Director Tony Clarke commissions the PAT (PA Technology) Centre, Cambridge to build a new micro computer and a new division of Mettoy is formed. (Source: Popular Computing Weekly - July 1982)

October 1981

Ian Thomson Bell at the PAT Centre, Cambridge designs the prototype of the Dragon as part of project SAM. (Source: Popular Computing Weekly - August 1982)

"We chose Microsoft Basic because the timescale dictated an off-the-shelf interpreter. The 6809 chip was selected because it is the best 8-bit processor. As far as the CPU is concerned, the design was relatively straightforward. With the 8-bit, the SAM chip and the 6847 you have virtually a home computer in three chips. The difficult parts of the design were the Microsoft driver and the video conversion."

The Microsoft driver was developed by Duncan Smeed at the University of Strathclyde.

"When Duncan brought it down" said Ian, "we tried to find out why it was so slow. After all, the 6809 is very fast. We looked at the Tandy TRS-80 which also uses the same chip and found that it too was comparatively slow. On the first version we designed a For/Next loop from 1 to 1000 which took two seconds to run. At first we thought it was because the Microsoft Basic was in some way cross-assembled from the Z80 Basic. Then we thought it could be a problem with the internal clock. Neither proved to the case."

"We looked at the amount of time spent scanning the keyboard. Of the 2ms spent in each run of the loop, 0.7ms was spent in the keyboard checking that keys such as Break had not been pressed. We tackled it as a logic problem, instead of scanning each key in turn, we designed it to check if any key had been depressed. This speeded up the software considerably - that is why the Dragon is so quick."

November 1981

The 1st Dragon prototype is shown to the Mettoy board and the PAT Centre, Cambridge is contracted to engineer the production. (Source: Popular Computing Weekly - November 1982)

A number of (at least 20) 16K prototypes were built manually and used cases made from dental material - these were sent out to reviewers and developers.

All of the prototypes "Pippin" and indeed the initial production run of 10,000 dragons were built as 16K machines as the decision to move to 32K came too late to change the initial production run. As a result, all 10,000 dragons in the 1st production run had to have a 16K "Piggy-Back" board added at the factory to bring them up to 32K. The decision to move from 16K to 32K is reportedly due to Sinclair launching both the 16K and 48K ZX Spectrum in April of 1982.

July 1982

The Dragon 32 goes into full production with RACE Electronics assembling the circuit boards, Mettoy using their existing suite of 200 plastic injection moulding machines to make the cases and Dragon Data Ltd, a division of Mettoy assembling and testing the finished product.

August 1982

Dragon 32 is released at a retail price of £199.50 and a production capacity of between 30,000 and 35,000 machines for the rest of this year.

Mettoy appear to be in financial difficulty.

PAT Centre works on Dragon 64 and floppy disk interface. (Source: Popular Computing Weekly - August 1982)

"Meanwhile, the PAT Centre is continuing to extend the Dragon project. Development is in hand for a mini-floppy disc system for under £250. Next year will also see the launch of an advanced Dragon - with 64K, enhanced graphics and a built-in disc operating system".

October 1982

Already the company is in financial difficulty and Managing Director, Mr. Tony Clarke, persuades financial institutions into a re-finance of Dragon Data. This left Mettoy with only a 15.5% shareholding after the Welsh Development Agency bought 23% and Pru-tech (the high-tech investment division of Prudential Insurance) the largest holding with 42%. With new money being ploughed in, Dragon Data would be able to contract out work (to Race Electronics who also built BBC's for Acorn), enabling them to build up the production rate to come closer to meeting the high demand for their product.

Late 1982

As part of the finance deal with the Welsh Development Agency, Dragon Data would prepare to move to a larger factory with increased manufacturing capacity compared to the current site within Mettoy - this being the infamous factory at Kenfig near Port Talbot.

March 1983

The move to the new premises was complete and 5,000 Dragons rolled off the production line every week, and this was to be increased to 10,000 units - Dragon Data rather naively believing that sales would continue strongly during the summer as they had on the run-up to Christmas. Although extra capacity did allow Dragon Data to extend its range and a formidable hardware expansion was planned for the rest of '83.

April 1983

Forty Thousand Dragon 32s had been sold, Dragon Data had become the largest privately owned company in Wales and high-street shops were queuing up to stock the popular machine; Dixons, Comet and Spectrum joining Boots as a Dragon retailer though the stationers WH Smith and John Menzies both gave Dragon Data the thumbs down, complaining they had enough on their plate with the Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Oric. Dragon Data weren't too worried as it wasn't in their interests to have too many retailers competing on price, and with the capacity at the plant not large enough for demand others were only receiving a restricted allocation.

Promised disc drive, OS-9 and Dragon 64 are delayed.

An announced is made that the 32 would be launched in the US that year, and after discussion with three interested American companies it would be manufactured in the US for economic reasons as a joint venture with the chosen US company. More importantly though the path to the US markets was eased, when Tandy denied claims that they were planning legal action against Dragon Data (for the similarity of the 32 and the Color Computer), due to Tandy not owning any patents on its machine in the UK and that by the time it would be settled out of court, both machines would be out of date.

May 1983

64K upgrade board for the Dragon 32 became a main board swap at an increased cost of £75, the board also being used in the newly announced Dragon 64 which was to priced at £250-300 but with extras such as an RS232 interface included.

June 1983

Dragon Data were now going to offer a main board swap for the 32K - 64K upgrade, as before, but this would be a full Dragon 64 main board with RS232 interface and second Basic ROM onboard. (the first ROM was Dragon 32 mode, and the second a Dragon 64 mode with Basic occupying the upper 16K of 64K RAM). To facilitate the use of the serial port, service agents would also change the bottom half of the 32's molding (adding an extra hole), at a total cost of £100 for the upgrade; the Dragon 64 was now expected to cost less than £275.

July 1983

From that point the US was Dragon Data's goal and it had been decided that the Tano Corporation of New Orleans would be the Dragon manufacturer and distributor for the Americas and Caribbean Basin. The Dragon 64 would be available in the US from August at a cost of $399, with the first few thousand machines being made in Wales and the rest in the US once Tano's production was up to speed.

August 1983

Dragon 64 was launched on the 26th with a retail price of $399 in the US and £225 in the UK where it could be bought from early September, but the US package would also include a much improved manual, spreadsheet, mail-merge and Telewriter 64 word processor. A statement by Dragon Data's marketing director Richard Wadman (who also wrote the manuals) told that this was due to that the US TV circuitry was easier to construct than for the UK, and so it could be done more quickly, but apart from this the European and American machines would be identical.

September 1983

Tano's production of the Dragon begins.

The thought that sales would continue through spring and summer at the level as at Christmas had proved to be a major misjudgement and it came as no surprise to industry analysts when Managing Director Tony Clarke was asked to resign by the shareholders - of course it was reported to the public that he had "previously indicated to the board that he wished to resign for personal resigns".

The shareholders asked GEC (the largest electrical company in the UK) to provide a senior executive to become the new chief executive of Dragon Data on "temporary secondment", and they duly obliged with Brian Moore appointed to the post on September 12th, until a new business plan for the company had been worked out - though Brian could not put a time on this. It was no shock decision to appoint a GEC executive - Prutech who held 42% of Dragon shares were also the major investor in GEC - but he was suitable for the job, moving from a deputy managing directorship post at a GEC subsidiary specializing in microprocessor controlled heating and ventilation systems, together with his experience in general electronic engineering, financial management and business applications for computers.

October 1983

Tano's production was up to capacity of the 48,000 square foot new plant where the lines were housed.

First rumours of the Dragon 128 are made - Featuring dual 6809 processors, a numeric keypad, 128K ram and OS9 selectable on power-up it seemed as if both companies had got their act together and times looked rosy.

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