When a Welsh computer was the must-have Christmas gift

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Come Christmas day the wrappings will be ripped off the latest smart watch, games console, or voice-controlled assistant but there was a time when the latest must-have piece of electronics was a Welsh-made computer.

At a time when people carry incredibly powerful mini computers around in their pockets and call them smart phones, it is hard to over-estimate the excitement of home computers back in the 1980s.

For the first time people could get their hands on affordable computers offering what seemed a world of opportunities – from playing games to doing the accounts. All you had to put was plug the machine into your TV, and hook up a cassette player to access the software – and then wait several minutes while the program loaded.

The machines were also programmable, meaning anyone could easily write their own software. It was a revolution.

The newly emerging market in the UK was dominated by companies such as Sinclair, Commodore, and Acorn’s BBC Micro – with the latter of going on to become a feature in schools up and down the country.

Seeing an opportunity, Swansea toy company Mettoy decided to jump into home computing – and the Dragon was born.

Founded in Northampton by Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany, Mettoy had been a part of life in Swansea since it moved to the city after the Second World War. Business boomed, and in 1956 the Fforestfach firm launched the now famous Corgi range of toy cars which would become a staple of many a childhood for generations to come.

Within a couple of years Mettoy was the biggest toy manufacturer in Britain, and a decade later was employing 3,500 people and opening a second site in Skewen near Neath .

By the early 1980 the new must-have items were home computers – and without any real experience in the technology sector, Mettoy decided to get involved.

It was a bold move from what was a “traditional” toy company, and with computing pioneer Sinclair struggling to deliver the keenly awaited Spectrum machines, Mettoy decided to act fast.

The company based its design on an existing computer by the American producer Tandy, and with a few tweaks to the tech the Dragon 32 was launched in the summer of 1982.

In a major coup Mettoy persuaded high street giant Boots to stock the machines along with the likes of Comet and British Home Stores, and the machines began flying off the shelves – in the run up to Christmas that year the firm was selling thousands of machines a week.

So on Christmas Day in 1982 many people around the UK were ripping off the wrapping paper on their new Welsh computer and playing the likes of Chuckie Egg, Manic Miner and Football Manager. You could even by a specialist programme to help you manage the records on your farm.



Dragon fan Darren Waters in the mid 1980s
Dragon fan Darren Waters in the mid 1980s

It seemed to be a hi-tech success – perhaps the start of a Welsh Silicon Valley to rival California

But behind the scenes, all was not well.

Like many firms in the early 1980s Mettoy was struggling financially, and with banks unwilling to lend money a large chunk of the company was sold to Prudential Insurance, while the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) – a government quango tasked with encouraging business growth and investment – bought another quarter.

As part of the deal with the WDA Dragon moved to a new factory in Margam in early 1983, and by March some 5,000 computers were rolling off the production line every week – this would later increase to 10,000.

The firm also announced plans to launch in America, while the Dragon User magazine was launched containing news and reviews.

Then came the more powerful Dragon 64 with its bigger memory.

But long delays in hardware upgrades and new products, combined with the graphical limitations of the machine – a big problem for gaming market – and a downturn in sales over the summer months left Dragon struggling.



A Dragon program was available to help down on the farm
A Dragon program was available to help down on the farm

Mettoys itself went into receivership but the computer spin-off firm carried on – though its finances remained fragile.

A number of the high street retailers who had supported Dragon stopped selling the machines, and though many fans remained loyal to the computers sales were declining.

Christmas 1983 saw a boost in the numbers but the following June Dragon called in the receivers with the company blaming “the continuing difficulties of establishing profitable trading in the UK and other parts of the world”. One executive said the home computer market was “not as buoyant” as many believed.

The Dragon was dead. And along with it went a lot of jobs, and the dream of establishing Wales as a player in home computing.

The designs were bought by a Spanish company, but after a couple of years that firm went bust too.



The Dragon computer is now a museum piece



Waterfront Museum curator Ian Smith with a Dragon computer from the collection
Waterfront Museum curator Ian Smith with a Dragon computer from the collection

Ian Smith, curator at Swansea’s Waterfront Museum said though initially successful, ultimately Dragon could not complete with its more established computer rivals.

He said: “The 1980s saw a whole revolution in home computers. Don’t forget that only 20 years earlier the giant Zebra Computer, which was made in Newport, took up two whole offices! The ‘keyboard’ part of it was half the size of a car and included a telephone built in.

“With silicon chips came miniaturisation. As with most great innovations, home computing was driven by a popular demand. In this case games. It was the logical step for a toy company like Mettoy/Corgi to invest in a product which children of all ages could enjoy.

“Suddenly a whole range of home computers were on the market and Dragon was only one small part of this. When Mettoy, the parent company, hit financial trouble it soon filtered down to Dragon.

“Even though they had formed links across the globe they couldn’t compete with the big names like Commodore, BBC who had money to invest in new software and games. Even so the Dragon 32 and 64 still have a place in many 40-somethings hearts. It was their first computer, it was the future.”



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