back to article Coding with dad on the Dragon 32

Stuart Drabble home schools his two young daughters. He lives in Norwich. In 1983 when I was 10 years-old my father bought our family a Dragon 32 computer. These were the days when computers had ‘Made in Wales’ stamped on the bottom and became affordable enough and small enough to have in the home. Affordable is of course a …

  1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    ‘Made in England’

    Wasn't the Dragon made in Wales?

    1. Efros

      Made in Port Talbot

      For the British and European market.

      The Dragon 32 was very like the TRS-80 in terms of the processor type and hardware etc. meant you could use quite a lot of the old TRS-80 software on the Dragon.

      1. Steve Todd

        Re: Made in Port Talbot

        Erm, no. The Dragon 32 was powered by a 6809, the conventional TRS80 had a Z80 under the hood. The TRS80 Color Computer (a TRS80 in name only) was very similar, but much less software existed for it.

        The 6809 was a nice CPU, but the Dragon was hampered by a crappy 6847 graphics chip. If they had fitted out with something less brain dead then they might have made a go of it.

        1. Efros

          Re: Made in Port Talbot

          Yep forgot the Color bit.

        2. Chemist

          Re: Made in Port Talbot

          "The Dragon 32 was powered by a 6809,"

          Got a disk drive for it and then a FORTH. Start of a very long relationship with both FORTH and 6809 assembler. Still have a home-made system around here somewhere.

        3. People's Poet

          re : The CPU

          Correction to all those on here, it wasn't the 6809 it was actually the MC6809E in both the TRS-80 CC & the Dragon 32. Still got my CC and BBC Micro. Another correction to the person who said that the Dragon wasn't a copy of the TRS-80. If you're going to be pedantic about the TRS-80 which are you referring to? The Model I, Model II (purely a business machine) or Model III which was used in both business and home, all of which used the Z80.

          If you ever used a Dragon or CC you might remember this, POKE 65495,0 or POKE 65497,0 the first of which would increase the internal clock speed of the 6809E and the latter would increase it even more, although to such an extent you lost use of the tape ports on the first and both the tape ports and display port on the latter, handy when you wanted to process something faster and didn't need video out during processing. POKE 65494,0 returned the system back to normal mode.

          1. Chemist

            Re: re : The CPU

            " it wasn't the 6809 it was actually the MC6809E in both the TRS-80 CC & the Dragon 32"

            Rather pedantic as the registers, instruction set and addressing modes of the 6809 & 6809E were identical AFAIR

        4. PhilBack

          Re: Made in Port Talbot

          Ah 6847, what a crappy chip.

          Had a TRS-80 CoCo 1 16K, got quite a mileage out of it, especially with the EDTASM cartridge.

          It was cool to have the wiring schematics, especially when I wired stuff from my 200-in-1 electronics kit.

          This was the Pi and Arduino of the day.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Martin an gof Silver badge

      Wasn't the Dragon made in Wales?

      Yup, and several BBC Acorn computers, some Sinclair (I think), some Commodore (apparently) and, of course, the mighty Raspberry Pi. Quite possibly others I suppose.

      The museum I work in has an Electron, a Vic-20 and a Dragon 64 in its "Made in Wales" display. Quite why they've decided on those models (particularly the Dragon) I'm not sure...

      See the background image at this web page. The computers are at top right, behind the reflections of the screens and rather difficult to see.

      There isn't a Pi in that case, yet, but one has been added to the collection. I run a fleet of about 20 Pis as video players in the museum.


      1. Anonymous Coward

        >"The computers are at top right, behind the reflections of the screens and rather difficult to see."

        Should've used a polariser :(

    3. Jim 59

      I would like to point out a couple of the errors in this article. But I can't, because, simply, Dragon 32 owners are never wrong about anything, ever. One can only congratulate the author on 33 years of utter win.

    4. Matthew Smith

      Port Talbot to be exact. And the Sinclair Spectrum was made at the Timex factory in Dundee. All the local kids had cheap Spectrums. And that is why there is a healthy games industry there, especially the GTA games.

    5. csn

      Apologies to the Welsh.

      Hi, as the OP / contributor I wish to apologise. I did in fact realise the Dragon was made in Wales. When I fired it up last week I was very pleased to see the words 'Made In Britain' on the bottom. I think it was my numb brain that translated this into 'Made In England'. I see the article has been edited though as to avoid a rebellion.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    I bought my first computer, a Spectrum from Smiths in 1983. Learnt the BASIC, then X80 assembler (all forgotten now, alas).

    I then somehow got an Atari 400ST, and with the stuff was a demo disc for GFA basic. I loved this so much I sent way for the full version with a complete manual (which I still have!).

    Anyway, I can still use this excellent bit of kit now and then as:

    there is a clone that works on all systems.

    All good stuff.

    1. Richard Taylor 2

      Re: Learning.


    2. LucreLout

      Re: Learning.

      I cut my teeth on GFA basic and it'll always be my favourite language for that. I'm really not sure what I would have done for a career had I not stumbled onto a copy of this sometime in '86 (for my Atari ST).

      In the unlikely event I ever bump into Frank Ostrowski I'll be more than happy to compensate him for any alleged loss of licence fee at the time (I was 11 or 12 so my pocket money would not have extended as far as ordering software from Germany) and buy him as many pints as he can sink in a night.

      1. Simon Brady

        Re: Learning.

        In the unlikely event I ever bump into Frank Ostrowski I'll be more than happy to compensate him for any alleged loss of licence fee at the time (I was 11 or 12 so my pocket money would not have extended as far as ordering software from Germany) and buy him as many pints as he can sink in a night.

        Well said, sir. A good chunk of the troubleshooting skills that keep me employed today trace right back to breaking copy protection on games I could never afford as a kid. For all it's cold comfort to the vendors of yesteryear who went out of business, it would be an honour to meet them and repay my childhood debts.

        1. Alan Bourke

          Re: Learning.

          I guarantee you all those games companies were full of people with their own comprehensive pirated libraries of games.

    3. Jim 59

      Re: Learning.

      Ah, the good old days when you could buy a computer at newsagent's, switch it on and enjoy. Without being your own systems administrator, installing AV, worrying about drivers, running out of storage (more cassette tapes always available), worrying about encryption, security, phone bills, compatibility with other systems, OS crashes, BIOS problems data backups, wireless strength etc...

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Teaching a child BASIC will have social services after your kids ;-)

      Is this "Get Atari computers muddled up day"? ;-)

      Article: "1983 was the era of the early ZX Spectrum and Atari 260. These were real computers, where you had to write programs to get them to do anything"

      The Atari 2600 (AKA VCS)? You must be thinking of something else (the Atari 400 or 800?). The 2600 console might technically have been a computer, but not in the sense that you mean- you *had* to use commercial software, since you couldn't program it in any meaningful sense. (#)

      FWIW, this might have been true of the ZX81, but the Spectrum- being the first really cheap UK computer to be capable of a vaguely-passable approximation of arcade-quality- quickly accumulated a library of games, and I'm quite sure that even in 1983 many were being bought as gaming machines.

      linicks: "I then somehow got an Atari 400ST"

      From what you say about GFA BASIC, I'm guessing you mean the 520ST? the Atari 400 was a completely different (8-bit) machine and the smaller sibling to the Atari 800.

      Also, I entirely agree with the sentiment of the story, so I don't want to give the impression that I'm at all critical of that in itself. However, at the risk of sounding like a d**k... not so much the idea of teaching a child BASIC specifically (or at least the unstructured BASICs on most 8-bit machines). I know it's a cliche to say that (at best) that these taught bad habits and (at worst) ruined many potential programmers... but speaking from personal experience, this- or at least the former- is absolutely true. :-(

      Nowdays, there are many easy-to-use choices that don't have the damaging limitations of 8-bit BASICs, and I'd much rather go with them.

      (#) Well, Atari *did* apparently release a "Basic Programming" cartridge, but from what I've heard it was unusably limited. Not surprising; they added a keypad controller, but didn't improve the VCS's 128 *byte* RAM (no, really). (##) Given that this was also a system with one line of screen memory (no, *really*) and no built-in text generation, it's astonishing that the designers managed to get it to work at all, let alone leave an astonishing sixty-something bytes for user programs after overheads.

      (##) Remember that games came on *ROM* cartridges that could hold up to 4 KB, so under normal use the RAM would presumably only be used to hold things like scores, sprite positions, etc.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Teaching a child BASIC will have social services after your kids ;-)

        I was going to offer the same correction1 regarding the Atari machines. It's a minor point, but minutia like that are half the fun of 8-bitter nostalgia.

        As for the question of learning BASIC on those old machines... I'm of two minds. I think BASIC is a fairly vile programming language, whether we're talking about Dartmouth BASIC or VB.NET or anything in between. And I say that having put many hours into BASIC programs myself; I used traditional BASICs on Commodore, Atari, and Apple 8-bitters, the IBM PC, the PDP-11; I used compiled BASIC on a couple of platforms; I occasionally had to wade in the swamp of Visual BASIC (pre- and post-.NET) to create samples for customers and the like.

        But those experiences taught me a lot about programming languages and how not to design them. And whatever bad habits they may have taught I quickly unlearned when I was introduced to structured languages. (I had also done some assembly programming and had some exposure to COBOL at that point, plus some scripting and whatnot, so I didn't think BASIC was the only way things could be done.)

        Most people will be familiar with Dijkstra's "Truths that Might Hurt" pronouncement about BASIC. But while I respect the man as a computer scientist and a first-order curmudgeon, he certainly wasn't right about everything.

        1What's that you say about the "Tips and Corrections" link at the bottom of the article? When it's a web form rather than a mailto-scheme link, I'll start using it.

  3. Steve Evans

    Ah... fond memories...

    Similar self taught programmer here, except I had a BBC Micro, which gave me the option of fiddling about with hardware too...

    Fused the house lights with triacs a few times, and became immune to 240v electric shocks before I was out of my teens!

    Playing on machines with such restricted power and storage has come in useful. I don't faint when confronted with a microcontroller project that has to run in a K.

    Although with the more modern ARM MCUs I'm tempted to start talk in a Northern accent to my colleagues and mentioning how spoilt we are now, and something about residing in a cardboard box in middle of t' street.

    1. Chemist

      Re: Ah... fond memories...

      "and something about residing in a cardboard box in middle of t' street."

      My first 'serious computer, (UK101) resided both in the cardboard box it came in and indeed in the north.

      1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: Ah... fond memories...

        > My first 'serious computer, (UK101) resided both in the cardboard box it came in and indeed in the north.

        We had it lucky - the Nascom 1 that (mostly my brother) built was in a nice aluminium cage - needed to keep the bits together!

        Before that he had a Cambridge Scientific Mk14 - but I don't think I ever programmed that. I certainly did programme the Nascom 1 (Z80 CPU). Due to the lack of an assembler (although we did get Zeap later) it was mostly had-assembled..

        Then t'was a BBC Micro (mine alone - I bought an EPROM programmer for *cough* testing ROMS on the sideways RAM/ROM card.). From thence to an Atari ST, then an Acorn Archimedes.

        Then joined the dark side and got a PC. Which ended up as my first linux box (slackware 0.99pl15). This was while I was programming IBM S/370 boxes in assembler. Then I grew up and went into support :-)

        Have I mentioned that (in IT terms) I'm old?

    2. wardster

      Re: Ah... fond memories...

      Cardboard box?

      Tshh! Luxury!

      We had t'live in hole in t'ground covered by a sheet of plastic with DELL written all over it.

      Then when we got t'work, we had t'pay mill owner permission t'just LOOK at the abacus we had t'work on, all day long, week in, week out.

      And when we got home, our Father would smack us over t'head with a broken router till we were dead.

      And tell t'kids that these days?

      1. Chemist

        Re: Ah... fond memories...

        "And tell t'kids that these days?"

        AND I had to solder it together AND when it didn't work debug it with a xtal earpiece AND replace the 7400 that was faulty - we used to do that sort of thing in those days.

        (and the bloody MS BASIC had a bug in the garbage collector !)

        A broken router ! - we used to dream about a broken router ... etc. etc..

    3. Bloakey1

      Re: Ah... fond memories...


      "Fused the house lights with triacs a few times, and became immune to 240v electric shocks before I was out of my teens!"


      Been there and done that. I used to buy knackered TVs and radios from jumble sales and I used to fix them. This of course resulted in many's a night listening to radio Tirana etc. with an up ended steel mesh type bed base being used as a makeshift directional antenna. My parents often saw me shoot across the room after having received a nasty shock. They thought it was normal from the weird kid and left me to get on with it. Try that nowadays and you would be up in front of the social services before you could say spare the rod and spoil the child.

      I started my I.T. career and attained a couple of degrees off the back of that and some Amstrad kit. Those were indeed the days.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ah... fond memories...

        +1 for late night radio memories. Radio Moscow World Service at one end of the shortwave spectrum and Radio Liberty (courtesy of the US State Department) at the other. And some truly wonderful but impossible-to-trace random radio in the middle. If you've ever made your own radio and stumbled upon a foreign radio station playing melancholy samba in the middle of the night you know what I mean.

    4. John Styles

      Re: Ah... fond memories...

      I woke up with a jump in the middle of the night as though I had had an electric shock. I went to the GP (young) and said it felt like an electric shock as in a proper mains one. She said 'I hope you haven't experienced one of them'. I thought of saying but forebore 'this was the 70s, we all gave ourselves mains electric shocks and were abused by Radio 1 DJs'.

      1. Steve Evans

        Re: Ah... fond memories...

        I love how we've all picked up a single (at time of posting) down vote for our little trips down memory lane...

        Guess that's the guy who played with the 3 phase, and can't remember anything...

        ... Or stop twitching.

  4. Mark 85

    I had the Radio Shack Color Computer here in the States.

    Happy times... trying to stuff as much as possible and be efficient about it into the memory. Waiting forever while the tape loaded or saving to the tapes. Learned Basic and assembly which carried over when I learned (self-taught) C and x86 assembly. Those old dinosaurs were great for teaching how not to write bloatware.

    It's really a shame that these types of machines aren't around much except as curiousity pieces. I think any kid wanting to learn computing and programming would benefit immensely as the one thing you learned was how to write fast code, especially if you learned to write games. Debugging was half the fun and much of the satisfaction. A magical time for me.

  5. Chika

    Colour? Hah!

    Although I started my various courses on a Hewlett Packard 21MXE and an Apple II, the very first system I ever owned was a Sinclair ZX81 complete with wobbly RAM pack. It lasted for 6 months before I got sick of it and sold it to some guy in Ilford and used the money as part of a pre-order for a BBC Model A (I got in there before Acorn slapped the extra £50 on all machines).

    Although this system is still in my flat in its original box, I haven't started it in a very long time, mostly because it has an original toroidal transformer PSU so before I ever get to put power into it I want to be damn sure that everything is free of leakage first! However it does bring plenty of memories back, not least because it meant that I no longer had to use that so-called "touch" keyboard that the ZX81 was known for!

    1. P. Lee

      Re: Colour? Hah!

      >Although I started my various courses on a Hewlett Packard 21MXE and an Apple II,

      Young people today and their fancy lower case!

      I see everything old is new again, with the flat keyboards and small devices...

    2. DJV Silver badge

      Re: Colour? Hah!

      If you had ever attempted to upgrade it to a "B" with 32K of memory, it probably wouldn't have worked anyway as the PSU wasn't good enough to handle the B's extra power requirements. Which is what I discovered when I tried a full A to B upgrade - had to send it back to Acorn who then replaced the PSU free of charge with one of the later beefier versions.

      1. Chika

        Re: Colour? Hah!

        If you had ever attempted to upgrade it to a "B" with 32K of memory, it probably wouldn't have worked anyway as the PSU wasn't good enough to handle the B's extra power requirements. Which is what I discovered when I tried a full A to B upgrade - had to send it back to Acorn who then replaced the PSU free of charge with one of the later beefier versions.

        I did manage to put most of the upgrades needed for Model B working but I had an external PSU to power the 5.25" Opus disc unit I used. I really wished I had taken on the PSU upgrade - I forget why I didn't. It wasn't as if it hadn't had upgrade work before considering that it had the OS 0.10 EPROMs fitted from the factory. There used to be a dealer on the North Street roundabout in Romford that did that job.

  6. stucs201

    I think your memory is a little fuzzy.

    32K RAM, not 16K. Turn it on and type ?MEM if you don't believe me, my recollection is it'll report 27000 and something available. More if you poke the relevant location to turn off the reservation of some for graphics (sorry, can't remember that one - someone remind me,...)

    I also seem to recall a price of £175, the Dragon 64 was obviously more, but can't remember how much.

    1. Christine Munro Silver badge

      Re: I think your memory is a little fuzzy.

      I think the confusion stemmed from the "16K Basic" message that appeared on boot: I recall thinking I'd been swindled out of half my memory first time I turned mine on! But I think MS decided it was a selling point over the standard 8K Basic (the 16K version had all the handy but slow graphical stuff in it, IIRC).

      The price was £200 (or maybe £199, as was the fashion). £175 would've bought to a 48K Spectrum with its infamously mushy keyboard.

      1. Kath

        Re: I think your memory is a little fuzzy.

        That was a lot of money for many parents in those days, but encouraging their child's interests and investing in their future made them struggle to find it somehow.

  7. Chris King

    FUZE Basic

    If you don't have the good fortune of having working old-school kit to play with, there's always FUZE BASIC on the Pi:

    Check out their "Special Edition" cases in BBC Micro colour scheme:

    They also did a version that used the Colour Maximite PIC32 board instead of a PI, with a minimal OS and BASIC for faster boot time. The Maximite also had additional Arduino-compatible I/O.

    Buying one of the cases or kits is more like an 80's computing experience - you even get wire-bound manuals in the box, none of this "documentation on CD" nonsense.

    You can put the more advanced kits together a little more cheaply by purchasing a Pi separately, and Maplin have the USB robot arm from the Model R kits on special offer right now - A37JN at £29.99.

    I cut my teeth on the ZX81 and Spectrum, moving from BASIC to Z80 assembler, and on to Forth (anyone else remeber White Lightning/Machine Lightning ?). After getting a +3, I bought CP/M, Locomotive Basic and HiSoft C. Then I was away to Uni, and tinkering with VAX/VMS and Ultrix-32.

    1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      Re: FUZE Basic

      If you'd rather use BBC Basic on the Pi, there's a cut-down RISC OS install with only what's needed for the Beeb experience:

  8. stucs201

    You can still get a new one

    US version though:

    I'd be seriously tempted if it wouldn't cost twice as much to ship it as to buy it. I'd also need to sort something out for the power supply :(

  9. spr97ajm

    Loved my Dragon.

    Pretty much the same story here. My Dad bought me one when they came out and I was hooked. Managed to convince my mum I was hacking into a local bank via the TV aerial. She nearly had a heart attack. Spent hours typing in code from 'Input' magazine. Loading games from cassette was definitely a dark art. Spent dozens of hours fiddling with volume, bass and treble controls, plugging and unplugging the cable, cleaning tape heads, turning off surrounding electrical equipment. "I/O ERROR". I sold it just last year. The bloke came back to me and said "You do know there was a break in the cassette tape lead?"

    Oh how we laughed.

    1. stucs201

      Re: Loved my Dragon.

      Mine seemed to only need 3 specific volume levels: Basic needed quite loud (Dad marked this with a small blob of paint on the volume control), legit machine code (and copies made with CSAVEM) needed a little quieter (happened to correspond to the paint blob just disappearing out of sight), tape to tape copies needed absolute minimum volume (and it wouldn't accept a copy of a copy).

      I didn't have tone/bass controls as such, but some games did need the tiny adjustment screw on the tape heads tweaked (generally the Dragon seemed to like it as screetchy as possible).

      Also useful was to leave the remote plug out of the cassette player, mine would put a kink in the tape when the motor stopped, meaning one IO error would cause more at the same point due to the kink.

  10. DainB Bronze badge

    Bought ? Pfft

    In the early 90s in what left from Soviet Union Z80 CPUs were fairly accessible, as well as RAM and ROM chips, but PLC that was responsible for everything else not so much. That's why to have clone of ZX Spectrum you had to buy PCB and bunch of resistors, capacitors and around 50 TTL discrete logic chips, solder it all together and troubleshoot all with logic analyzer trying to understand why it does not work, find solder bridge or faulty chip. After that you needed build your own case using plastic and acetone to bend it, assemble your own transformer power supply using infamous LM7805, pop open back cover of your TV set and find points to connect RGB signal from computer trying not to fry both TV set and yourself in process, and finally connect cassette player and load a game form a tape. One of the best additions you could imagine was Yamaha AY-3-8910 sound processor which allowed you actually produce some kind of horrible but bearable sound, and of course you had to solder it all yourself and second most desirable addition was 5 inch 720KB floppy drive.

    Mind you, in few years this homegrown ZX Spectrum evolved into quite an advanced beast with 2MB RAM and dual boot CP/M in ROM with decent word processing and spreadsheet capabilities and line printer support, but it was too late as around that time imported 386SX33 based computers became a bit more accessible.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Started on a ZX80 at school, aged 10. Moved onto the ZX81 and then Speccy. Spent a lot of time with 8x8 sized areas of graph paper. Some of my rather naff efforts at space invaders clones did not set the world alight (or even the school to be honest).

    Later Dad bought a C64 from the NAAFI in Rheindahlen (I'm an Army brat). Me and my brother come home from school in the UK. Dad proudly shows us the new computer and sticks the power lead into the video out port. Four weeks or so later we got to play with it.

    ... 30 odd years pass ...

    Nowadays, I compile my desktop and laptop OS from source and have nine VLANs at home. Two of them are for the summer house at the bottom of the garden.

    Cheers Dad.

  12. Efros

    AIM 65

    First taste of programming was on the AIM 65, a 6502 development system which had an assembler and a BASIC interpreter. This was followed swiftly by the purchase of a Spectrum 16k and hours spent entering BASIC programs from various sources, generating a few of my own and hacking Z80 routines nicked from the software that came with it. My work at that time gave me a lot of exposure to a lot of different machines, Osbornes, TRS-80s, TRS-80 Color, BBC-B, Olivetti Word Processing systems, a Z80 based multi user CP/M system along with a few CBM Pets both with proper keyboards and horrible membrane type ones. My next job was hardware based and involved building interfaces for Apple IIe's to hook up with various laboratory equipment both through conventional means and by hacked electronics (intercepting the display signals on a photon counter springs to mind). The advent of the Apple IIc and its closed architecture put an end to that and I got my first taste of IBM PC based programming and hardware hacking. Our first IBM was an AT with 512K of Memory, a 80287 coprocessor, a Hercules graphics card and a monochrome monitor, total cost was close to £4000. My next home machine was an Amstrad CPC6128 which was the last off the shelf machine (apart from laptops) I bought.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: AIM 65

      I used to lust after an AIM 65.

      My first was a Sinclair MK14 (still here, but the PROMs have bitrot now) which had a no-longer-extant homebrew video display: took me a week to design and three months to debug a stupid level converter error.

      Then came the wonderful Tangerine 65... things in plastic cases were for wimps. This came on 160*100 Eurocards, with a proper backplane, and fitted in a 3U 19" rack with space for heaps of expansion cards. All of which you could make yourself! Whee!

  13. Martin an gof Silver badge

    "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

    Schools had neither the time, expertise or equipment necessary to teach me the skills I would need to have a career in IT.

    That may have been true of primary schools (but let's face it, few even attempt to teach that these days) but I don't think it applied to secondaries. In 1983 I was in my third year of secondary school and taking "Computers" as a subject(*). We were taught computer history, BBC BASIC, flow charts, logic, even binary maths. The school's complement of computers was 12 BBC Micros with cassettes and a single printer, but I know that other schools were more well-endowed with Econet networks providing file stores and printer sharing around about that time.

    About half my year took O-level Computer Studies which provided more of the same, though the teacher wasn't brilliant and from memory only three or four of us passed and only two of us went on to do A-level Computer Science.

    The year I did A-levels was the last year that binary maths was part of the Computer Science syllabus (WJEC) and by then the school had enough BBC Micros and Masters for children to work individually and have some left over for other departments. They were generally connected to shared disc drives by some oddly clever bit of kit not unlike a printer sharer. We had one 1200/75 modem but the nearest phone extension was in the medical room 20 yards up the corridor and if we wanted to connect to TTNS (oh yes, we did) we had to physically cart a computer, monitor and modem up there, plonk it on the bed, warn the school secretary that we were about to make an external call and hope some child wasn't having his knee patched.

    By the time I left school in 1988 it wasn't obvious whether they would upgrade to Archimedes or to Atari ST (the teacher preferred the latter and was also an avid Sinclair QL owner) and when I arrived at Polytechnic the vast majority of computing was done on VT-220 terminals talking to a network of Vax machines. Even then the "PC" was by no means guaranteed to be the future of computing. The Poly must have had three or four hundred VT-220s while from memory apart from those computers in lecturers' offices, there were a couple of dozen XT machines and about half that number of '286es.

    Oh, and a room full of Archimedes too, though nobody seemed to know why.

    I'm trying to encourage my own children to understand my early interest in computers and it's the youngest (7) who is actually enjoying the after-school coding club where they teach some kind of cut-down Scratch. Astounded to see her construct a rudimentary eat-all-the-apples game, not by slavishly remembering what they had done in club, but by logical thinking. She's got the hang of "if... then..." in the space of a couple of weeks and knows how to break a problem down into easy steps.

    My devious plan is that when we do our massive rebuilding project, each bedroom will have its own thermostat which I will build from an Arduino and programme very simply. "If you want a more comfortable room, here's the source code".


    (*)actually, thinking about it, perhaps I misremember that - it might only have been in 1984 when I started O-levels that the computers arrived.

    It might also be worth pointing out here that it was a new school and I was the first intake so not only had computers never been taught there as a subject before, but nothing had, and we had more than one young fresh-out-of-college teacher for whom it was all a bit much. But I enjoyed it and I'm glad I went. I'm not much of a fan of home-schooling and am strongly of the opinion that my children have learned so much more by being at school with <n>hundred others than they would have done be being at home, even if I (or my wife) would be more than competent academically (we're both trained teachers, though only she is practising)

    1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

      Yes, I went to university in 1987 and used VT220s connected to VAXen. My first thought when I got there was: when are we going to use some *real* computers?

      In the last semester of my last year there we did use real computers, almost, in a microprocessors module where, ironically, we used a suite of reboxed Dragons connected to, yes, VT220 terminals.

      1. Fink-Nottle

        Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

        > Yes, I went to university in 1987 and used VT220s connected to VAXen. My first thought when I got there was: when are we going to use some *real* computers?

        I was at a South African university in the 70's. They ran a closed shop, meaning first year students weren't allowed anywhere near the mainframe. The closest we ever got to a computer was an IBM keypunch used to prep a deck of punch cards. These were submitted to the computer operator and run whenever he could be arsed. Everyone sucked up to the operator.

        It was a revelation when I started work in the 80's and my boss let me take home an HP85 to tinker on in my spare time. I remember it fondly - HP Basic, assembly and creating elaborate prank programs to spring on unsuspecting co-workers.

      2. jeffdyer

        Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

        Are you saying that the VAX was not a real computer?

      3. Chika

        Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

        The VT220 was a good beast but a bit expensive. Mind you, at least it didn't fall in half like the VT100 did! I found out about that problem the HARD way!!!

    2. Geoff Campbell Silver badge

      Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

      I left secondary school in 1983, and there was no hint of any computing on the curriculum, at least in our slowly sinking cesspit in Woking. The school did have three computers (ZX-81, BBC B, and RM380Z), and a maths teacher with a perpetually puzzled look on his face whenever I tried to talk about programming them. I think I was about the only pupil in the school who knew anything about programming, all of which was completely self-taught.

      I did attempt to take Computer Science at A Level, but me and the lecturers didn't really agree on much, so I bailed out after the first year and got a job as a programmer.


      1. Bloakey1

        Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

        "I left secondary school in 1983, and there was no hint of any computing on the curriculum, at least in our slowly sinking cesspit in Woking."


        I had a similar experience in Wimbledon, leaving school in 78 . They had a brilliant system bigger than a fridge freezer washing machine combo ! Only a few boys could touch it and you had to do that in your own time. I buggered off to the Royal Signals and then the Foreign Legion and caught up in the late eighties and then went to Uni to do a degree and later a masters (I picked a French one up en passant as it were).

        As I discovered from my own kids, being bright and intelligent can land one in the special needs category and some slip through the net as it were.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

      pretty much the same at our comp. We had 2 or 3 model B's and about half a dozen Oric's! I did O level computer studies and got a D (this was the best I could have got as we weren't taught a large portion of the syllabus!)

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: "In 1983 when I was 10 years old"

        this was the best I could have got as we weren't taught a large portion of the syllabus

        Hey, did we go to the same school?


  14. The Mighty Spang

    dragon's place in our defence history

    1st job, approaching 1990 as a tech support guy, took me all over a large r&d and manufacturing site. One day a guy stopped me and said 'you might be interested in this!' and opened a cupboard to show a dragon 32 with a large hole cut in the case. something used to be attached inside to collect signals, and that was used to run a large CNC mill.

    anybody else know something about that?

    i should have taken it with me but in those days we were looking forwards. I looked down on the PDP-11s and PDP-8s sat around idle in print rooms, kept in case we needed to work on old systems again, and now I'd give a bollock to own one.

    about a year later our collection of giant 19" rack VAXes got almost replaced by small PC sized versions, 9 track mag making way to DAT for backup.

  15. Gene Cash Silver badge

    In '79 my school had *a* TRS-80

    The advanced class got to use the single TRS-80 model I with a cassette.

    The next couple years they got floppy drives and model III machines.

    I was banned because I asked the creationist "science" "teacher" about evolution. He was furious I even asked "what about those dinosaurs?" I'm hoping Mr. Michael Kratzer has had a long slow painful heart attack accompanied by a horrible stroke and/or a descent into Alzheimer's where he can feel every moment of his brain going.

    I'm not bitter. Really.

    1. jeffdyer

      Re: In '79 my school had *a* TRS-80

      I remember taking shifts typing in a Star Trek type adventure into our 380Z and everyone was in fits of laughter when it was their turn to read out the code and reached a G$.

      Didn't know why at the time, but joined in anyway.

  16. Mario Becroft
    Thumb Up

    What an awesome way to introduce your daughter to whole worlds (computing, logic, mathematics are just the start...) in a hands-on way with direct feedback and immediate gratification--you write the program and see it work immediately--or not work, and so you fix the problem. The whole sysem is simple enough a 7 year-old can readily grasp it.

    Now imagine trying to teach your kid web programming (the new platform du jour). How would even begin teaching a novice so they might have a hope of building a useful mental model of what's going on at all levels of the system, let alone debug the pages of cryptic error tracebacks when you forgot a ; in your JavaScript.

    For introductory computing at this level, I feel simple, direct feedback and the simple joy of learning one has agency over the machine and the power coming from that... is irreplaceable.

    1. GrumpyOldBloke

      >Now imagine trying to teach your kid web programming

      Works pretty well. Create a framework page with some controls for input / output, a canvas element to make thing interesting, some basic JavaScript that they can build on and a RUN button to start the code. Proceed as you would with Basic - insert procedural code here. Admittedly in-program input handling is a littler trickier than 20 input x but there is a lot of scope for exploration before they get to that. All this from the comfort of a client, cross platform, no server required. JavaScript solutions are also easily shared amongst peers for that special motivation that parents can't provide. The Dragon 32 looks cute but it is a dead end. Python/PYGame on a modern system might have been a better choice.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Create a framework page with some controls for input / output, a canvas element to make thing interesting, some basic JavaScript that they can build on and a RUN button to start the code. Proceed as you would with Basic - insert procedural code here.

        The Javascript shell isn't a bad start for kids poking around with Javascript, actually. Or even the debugger & console built into most modern browsers.

        But an arrangement like you describe would give kids more of that "simple REPL console" experience we had with the 8-bit PCs and their built-in BASICs.

    2. csn

      Boot time < 1 second.

      Yes I agree, you have expressed that really rather well. Within a few minutes we had simulated a dice game and I spent much of the day showing her some basic.

      We reviewed some other coding sites and they want to teach HTML. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but teaching a 7 year old BASIC will give immediate gratification, and it's fun.

      I was of course delighted with the boot time of around, oooo, 0.5 seconds!

  17. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    Basic for Children

    Dracula? Garlic, to under 16-teens?

    The historical aspect is definitely interesting, but the Basic part alone would have made me skip the idea altogether. As far as languages for beginners go, Apple 2 clones had one very interesting option - GraphFort. You could write a functional (and fast enough - something impossible in Basic) game in a couple of hours. It also taught you to think differently, recursion, stacks, etc.

  18. Simon Booth

    The Dragon 32 was also my first owned computer. The Apple ][ and Commodore Pet 2000s I had access to were way beyond any home pocket at the time.

    I learnt Machine Code on the Dragon which drove much of my career as I matured

    Eventually I moved to PCs but the skills I learnt on 6809 paid off hugely as my workplace responsibilities expanded resulting in the legal hacking (I was very careful to get release from the license) of a program that ended up on the cover of 75k copies of PC Format. I'd never have gained those skills without my trusty old Dragon.

    For those of you aching to experience the original on modern kit check out - it brings back fond memories on new kit

    1. Colin Critch


      I found my DASM cartridge in May when I had to move house. I loved the Dragon 32. I will try to get it running again over xmas. I wish I had rescued more of the programs now! Remember Donkey kong, Phantoms.

      1. csn

        Re: DASM

        Yes, go for it. Look up The DRAGON Archive /

        I resurrected an old tape recorder to load a couple of things but actually you can play / save WAV's from a PC. Plenty of WAV's on said site.

  19. Christine Munro Silver badge

    Fond-ish memories of my Dragon, which was my first computer in I think Christmas 1982. The other alternatives I considered were a Spectrum and a VIC-20, but the Spectrum had the horrid keyboard and the Vic was getting a bit long in the tooth by that time. The Dragon was a great programmer's machine what with its 6809E and interesting operating systems, though the reality was that the latter in particular needed deeper pockets than my family possessed. So I had to make do with Microsoft Basic (yeah, I really felt the burn from people who had access to the much more advanced BBC Basic) and games that ran in a choice of two rather nasty 4-colour palettes. Some of them were awesome though, such as the Cuthbert games.

    It got me on the road to computing, so it was a good investment. My attitude still hasn't changed, I manage to remain entirely ambivalent about whatever I'm using, which probably says more about me being an eternal malcontent than the pros and cons of the Dragon!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      yeah didn't the VIC have something like 3.5k RAM

      1. GeezaGaz

        Any colour you like as long as its green....

        I didn't have a D32, my friend did and he became quite adept at 6809 assembler on it. Even going as far as writing a Rally X clone. My one overriding memory is how everything was green! Quite a limited colour palette.

        I had a vic20 which yes whilst had 8 colours had a paltry 3.5k, unless you slammed in a 4/8/16K cartridge. I went for a switchable one as bizarrely games written for one memory expansion didn't always work on another.

      2. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

        VIC20 memory

        The VIC-20 (my first computer) had 5K, of which 3.5K was available after it had loaded the BASIC interpreter, etc.

  20. goldfish

    And my Machine was a BBC micro as well

    I loved my BBC micro, at the time the BASIC programming was leading edge, you could download programs on to your tape recorder from a BBC radio program (and they sometimes worked !!!).

    My favourite was the racing cars one.

    I also thought the sideways ROM chips were mega cool and I had a word processor and spreadsheet which I used regularly.

    To run the programs, as I recall, you preceded the rom with an asterisk, so *W kicked the word processor program into life and *C brought the spreadsheet onto the screen faster than some prgrams run today.

    I also had the space adventure Elite which was so far ahead of it's time... (sigh.. happy days)

  21. Mark Fenton

    How HOW **HOW**

    Do you interface the dragon (or in my case my Acorn Electron) to a modern TV?! I've managed to retrieve all my old data from my ADFS disks...and the Electron still boots with a nice "beep" - but nothing to plug it into.


    1. Martin an gof Silver badge

      Re: How HOW **HOW**

      Are you sure your TV doesn't have a composite video interface? It might not be a separate phono plug if there's a SCART socket. The Electron can do composite video. I think it was even colour, unlike that on the BBC Micro (without modification). It might even be possible to connect the Electron's RGB output to the RGB input of a SCART, though you might have to use resistors in-line.

      Failing that, many tellies still seem to have analogue tuners available, even though they are no longer used. Put it into "ATV" mode (or whatever) and do a scan with the Electron plugged into the aerial socket. Should pick it up somewhere around channel 36 I think.

      I'm still working my way through some old DFS discs (I have a BBC B) and am struggling a bit with those used for AMX Pagemaker / AMX Stop Press which seem to store each page as a set of MODE 0 strips...


    2. stucs201

      Re: How HOW **HOW**

      Search around ebay. You'll probably be able to buy the appropriate cable already made. The key point is that a modern TV is best connected as a monitor, not via the TV modulator. You may be out of luck if you only have HDMI on your TV, but surely you can find one with a scart or composite connection.

    3. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: How HOW **HOW**

      Fired my Dragon up for the first time in 20-odd years the other day. Works just fine.

      Into the aerial socket courtesy of a male phono to female coax adaptor from eBay.

    4. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

      Re: How HOW **HOW**

      I got quite excited when I was rummaging through a cupboard and found my long-forgotten ZX Spectrum (48K). I tried hooking it up to the TV co-ax socket and switching the TV to analogue input....the TV tuner found the Speccy's input, but it was really poor quality. I think that the older TV's were a bit more forgiving, but modern kit isn't so kind

    5. csn

      Re: How HOW **HOW**

      Yes, this is a question of mine. We have an old TV that has a coax input and so supports the Dragon,. but I really want a way to Output our Atari 2600 to our projector. We're talking COMBAT on a 96" screen :-)

      I'll post it on

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: How HOW **HOW**

        If you have an old video recorder knocking about it can do sterling service as a UHF - composite video adapter for those poor computers that only have UHF outputs and new tellies that don't like 1980s cut-down PAL encoders. Feed the UHF from the Spectrum or the Atari into the VCR's aerial input, tune it up and connect the VCR's composite video output to your TV.

        There is probably a way to get at the composite video which must be present in all these computers too - the shiny silver box with the aerial socket is a modulator, and one of its inputs is composite video, though possibly not at the 75Ohm that a TV expects.


  22. Zot

    Whenever the Dragon computer is mentioned...

    ... I see an old (and fuzzy) TV showing that hideous green colour, with that yellow and blue trying their best to burn into existence through the glare.

    I had a BBC to develop on, where I could open a bracket and start typing ASM code in the middle of BASIC. So there! :)

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Funny how the comments barely respond to the article

    I guess a nerve has been touched, so good work, Mr. Author.

    With the benefit of hindsight it doesn't really matter what you teach your daughter in: Dragon BASIC or Python on Pi or whatever. What matters is that you spend time exploring together. Here's to da yoof!

    1. csn

      Re: Funny how the comments barely respond to the article

      All true, thank you, though at least on the Dragon I also get to re-live my childhood playing Quest :-)

  24. Nebra

    The joys of typing in four pages of PCW code, and getting it to run.

    Sigh, the joys of typing in four pages of PCW code, and getting it to run, having my big brother explain what an array was, peeks, pokes, endless tapes, and the excitement of getting a 'disk drive'.

    Happy days!

    Get that girl some example code from

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Machine code

    When I was young we wrote anything useful, byte by byte, in machine code. Youngsters of today...

  26. JohnLH

    Made in Wales, designed in Cambridge, does yours have a strange ghostly colour effect on text? Reason for poor graphics - supposedly clever but fundamentally flawed usage of a standard Motorola graphics chip to save a few pence on a crystal.

  27. neil clarke

    The Dragon reminds me of... my dad!

    I remember when we had our first Dragon, one of the first off the line. Then dad took it back and upgraded it with more RAM... damn i felt the coolist kid in town!

  28. Martin Milan

    Ah - memories...

    Anyone remember "Quest" - the BASIC game that was included with the Dragon32?

    My mission to pop down and teach the Warlock a few things was made infinitely simpler when I discovered currency trading lol... You see, the game's internal currency was "gold coins", and lots of things could be bought and sold in the game - including, interestingly enough, gold coins...

    Rather than correct this oversight and actually treat coins as currency as opposed to a tradeable inventory item, the developer decided not stop any naughtiness by checking that for blaggards like me who would offer to sell a gold coin for the princely sum of two gold coins - by writing a test that effectively looked for price_per_coin < 2.

    Had that test been price_per_coin <= 1, the Warlock would have remained a happy man. Sadly, I rather got into the habit of selling coins for 1.9999999999 gold coins - building up quite a little nest egg for myself in the space of five minutes, allowing me to purchase a rather impressive militia to wonder down to warlock central to explain what's what - usually in one very decisive battle...

    Happy times - and an example I still use to this today to illustrate decent validation to junior developers...

    1. stucs201

      Re: Ah - memories...

      Selling gold for profit was good to get started. However once you'd got one broadsword, piece of chainmail, etc. a much more direct cheat was to 'drop' a negative amount of them.

      Don't bother doing that with things you only needed one of though. 10000 men with only one small boat , oil lamp and shovel between them was fairly typical for me.



      1. csn

        Re: Ah - memories...

        I seem to recall getting across the river with 0.1 Small Boats. I will have to try again :-)

  29. Captain Badmouth

    Dragon 64

    You could get a 128k extender board which piggy-backed onto the motherboard which gave a much improved mono vdu output. A choice of OS-9 or Flex ran quite nicely. I rather liked flex at the time, it seemed to be more logical than OS-9 . I have a system in the loft somewhere which has a 10 or 40MB hard disk (I forget which) attached. Anyone else remember "Park"?

    Flex wiki :

  30. Yugguy

    basic rules

    Basic was/is a superb language. Simple and you can produce results quickly so it's great for teaching kids.

    I got a game code listing for the ZX81 published back in the day. A simple wrap-around game with a little aeroplane dropping bombs to level column buildings so it could land.

    Happy days.

  31. TRT Silver badge


    Disappointed you didn't go for Eliza.

    1. Chika

      Re: Elisa?

      Heh! The only use I ever had for that program was seeing what happened when you typed rude words in! Mind you, I was a lot younger then...

  32. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    i did my first coding on a dragon with Dad . He adapted a type-in "breakthrough" type game so the bricks fell down . awesome. He seems to have forgotton it all now though and looks confused when i use words like "array"

  33. Lamont Cranston

    There's an interesting article to be written on this subject.

    How does learning to code on BASIC compare to something like Scratch - are today's kids put off by the flashing cursor? For example, my eldest was somewhat disappointed to find that Python was just a text editor, compared to the rich environment of drag-&-droppables that Scratch provides, although he quickly picked up the basics of Java when it was presented as a game (making robots move about and fight, or something).

    More please, Reg writers!

  34. fixit_f

    "I find it telling that the foundation of my career is based upon an investment made by my parents for our home"

    My parents used to give me their cast off IBM PC's - I never had anything else, or a console. So in 1990-ish I had an Amstrad PC1512 with a 20 meg hard disk, MSDOS3, and GEM. I formatted the whole thing, got it running DOS-5, installed Windows 1 (or 2)

    By 1995-ish I'd reached the dizzy heights of a Tandon 286 with an EGA screen. And just as I went to uni in 1997 they gave me a 386-DX. So all of these machines were a good 8-10 years behind the curve, which meant I could never play the latest games. Which was great, because instead I learned about hardware, installing/tweaking OS'es to run in limited resources and also a bit of coding in MS QBasic of all things. To this day I still know DOS scripting backwards (in fact that knowledge got me my first IT job) and I'm still using it regularly for work thanks to some legacy products I have to deal with.

    So like yourself I now have a career as a developer IN SPITE of a state schooling system that basically just wanted to teach me how to do mail merge in MS Office. The thing I owe my career and interest in computing to is my parents being too tight to buy me a new computer, and giving me their knackered old ones instead.

    1. csn

      Nice words, thank you. I am also grateful that when I did eventually switch up to PC, I did so in the DOS and Windows days, where it was essential to know your command line from your mouse. Still stands me in good stead today.

  35. Amorous Cowherder
    Thumb Up

    Bang on the money!

    " I want to make the point that I learned about computers in spite of the state school system and not as a result of it. "

    I started with a Dragon32 and my Dad said at the time, "If we're getting a computer then we'll get a proper one with a proper keyboard, not one those stupid, cheap rubber efforts from Sinclair!". Ha ha!

    The one good thing with getting a machine with very little software available you had to learn yourself. That or you typed in magazine listings, which always went wrong BUT they taught you a hell of a lot about how to debug someone else's code and fix programs!

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I love the nostalgia for those days. I played with Clive SInclair's Mk14 around 1979, but only for a month or so. I even played with a ZX Spectrum for a few days.

    For me, the real shift in usefulness came with a disk operating system (CP/M-80) when I bought an Osborne 01 in 1982 and started into Z80 assembler and C (courtesy of Leon Zolman's amazing C compiler). dBaseII was truly amazing, and later on all the dBaseII stuff ported directly onto the PC with no change (courtesy of Mediamaster, which could read both Osborne and PC floppies). Some of the simple databases I built on the Osborne were later ported on a PC from dBaseII to dBaseIII......and they are still recognizable today compiled with Harbour3.0 under Linux!!!

    So....good luck with the new dawn for the old Dragon.....but some of my Osborne-developed C and some of my Osborne-developed databases are still recognisable today in stuff running on my Linux server!

  37. Admiral Grace Hopper

    A good place to start

    I hope that your daughter enjoys the experience as much as I did.

    I couldn't get near the RM380Z at school as it was monopolised by two boys in awful jumpers (Hi Andy! Hi Chris!) who didn't allow girls into their fiefdom. When my Dad bought us a Dragon 32 it was my gateway to a new world, one in which I have lived and made my living since leaving university. If you can learn how to make something work in BASIC in that sort of restricted environment then you will have a good toolset at your disposal for later life.

    I was your daughter as much fun with this machine as I had.

  38. jelabarre59

    > ...when computers had ‘Made in England’ stamped on the bottom...

    But did they leak oil? And god forbid you accidentally hit the "Lucas" switch...

    1. Captain Badmouth

      Spanish practices

      As I recall production of the Dragon moved to Spain after the company here folded.

  39. Trixr

    Thank you. This is exactly how we get more women into IT - parents getting their daughters interested. I'm sure this is just you being a good dad, but the knock-on effects can be huge.

    Not sure about BASIC as a first learning language, but if she loves it and so do you, that's the main thing.

    1. csn

      Thank you too. She is rather 'visual', but once I started to introduce sound, colour and games she was hooked. I am currently trying to get her to grasp variables, and when she does - well that is also algebra sorted.

    2. Chika

      Not sure about BASIC as a first learning language, but if she loves it and so do you, that's the main thing.

      The actual language that you start with isn't as important as learning the various techniques and structures within programming. Some BASICs are better than others but if you learn properly, you will normally be able to switch between languages with little trouble.

      For example, I started with Pascal rather than Basic and have mucked about with various shell scripts, COBOL, Python and a few more obscure languages that I doubt are in use anymore. Once you pick up the syntax, it's not that difficult.

      It's what got me interested all those years ago.

      1. Trixr

        Which was essentially my point. :-)

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I lost my Dragon 32 in a house move

    Articles like this bring a tear to my eye, my missing first love. I guess its in a garbage tip now.

    Although I survived learning BASIC, and have now progressed onto much better languages like Perl and Python, I guess BASIC did teach me assigning things to variables and the if then else construct, even if it did have GOTO and line numbers.

    Back then to get the machines to do anything quickly you really had to write machine code. I haven't really done anything in machine code since the early to mid 80s, but it does install an appreciation of what is really happening deep down in a machine, which people who only learned higher level languages quite often seem to lack.

    Ahh happy days , and I hope my Dragon 32 is resting in peace somewhere, probably a bit like Toy Story when the toys end up in the dump. Sorry my Dragon 32 !

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