David Farrugia : The Dragon ambassador in Malta

You’ve probably not heard of David Farrugia, even if you are in the Dragon community but he has become infamous in a way, as he is the man behind the ‘Dragon Computers & Software’ shop sign on Dragon Data’s entry in Wikipedia. The shop sign was for ‘Datatech’, formally at 67 Strait Street, Valletta Malta, but he was more than just a Dragon retailer and even had a side hustle of doing backups for an insurance company in the evenings.

Let’s find out more....

Datatech Sign

Q : For a start, how did you first hear about Dragon computers?
A : I had done some studies into setting up a training centre – at the time I was interested in teaching BASIC. I was never into the idea of teaching applications. I was always of the belief that if you can read a book you can learn an application. The Dragon seemed to tick most of the boxes. With a good keyboard, a very near standard BASIC, price was about right as well, so that’s what we decided to go with. I’d gone to England and looked at a few computers on sale there. There weren’t very many computers available in Malta at the time; it was just the Commodore 64 and the BBC, which was just coming in, and the Sinclairs. At the time the Spectrum had just started, but mainly it was the ZX80 and the ZX81.

Q : But you were the only person importing the Dragon? No competition there?
A : No, other people were selling the BBC, the Commodore 64, the Ataris and in dips and dabs while I was in the business I saw a few of the Oric, maybe two or 3 of them. The Amstrad, the ones complete with the screen and everything. I mean, computers were big news at the time. Everybody wanted them, very few people could afford them.

Q : What other hardware, software etc were you selling at the same time as the Dragon?
A : Nothing, no electronics, no. It was a spin-off because I was looking for machines I could use for teaching, and the idea of selling them as well was more of a sideline. If they trained on the machine maybe they might want to buy the machine. I also used to hire out the machines to my trainees, the ones that didn’t have a computer at home. Basically, they could hire it for a couple of pounds. Lost a few machines that way …. but anyway.

Q : How many Dragons do you think you sold? Any how many got nicked by people you’d hired them out to?
A : Nicked? Maybe half a dozen over a few years. Sold, if I’m not mistaken, close to 200 machines. Which, for Malta is a lot. All 32s and 64s. We were never approached about selling the (Eurohard) 200.

Q : What about reliability issues with the Dragon? Did you have any problems?
A : Yes. (He answered this so fast I barely got the question out!) Power supply mainly. We had a problem with hooking up the machines to composite video monitors; there was a waver effect, which wasn’t at all pleasant, but we manage to sort that out by disabling one of the pins on the ICU which controlled the video.

Q : Tell me a little about the problems you had importing them under Mintof**
A : The government at the time was very anti-computers, because they were going to take people’s jobs away and all the rest of it. As a result, it was made very, very difficult to import computers as a business to resell, to the extent that every computer imported had to have a personal import license made out to the person who was actually going to buy the computer. So it was really a question of rushing around getting signatures off aunts and uncles and grannies and grandpas (and almost digging up great-grandpas as well) to get enough people to sign an application so that you could get an import license for the computer. It was only at the very end that they started to liberalise it a little bit. So yes, it was a problem.
There was also a problem getting peripherals, and one of the big battles I had for a green screen composite video monitor. The customs department claimed “Oh, but you can hook it up to a video recorder and you’ll have a television set.” Yes, alright, but as if we want to watch green monochrome television, you know? That was the situation. To the extent that at one stage (talking about video monitors) the customs department contacted (as experts) people who were actually competitors, who were importing things themselves. It was very difficult. I’m sure some people found loopholes, ways and means.

Q : Did it ever get any better?
A : Towards the end things eased off a little, and we could get together in a group and import them a bit more easily. But then reliability was always causing another problem with importation. When we’d get a machine in, paid the import duty and all the rest, then you take it to your workshop and set it up to try it out and find that it’s not working properly, then you’re well and truly buggered. Because you’ve paid the import duty on it, you can’t get that back.
If you re-export it, send it back, then you’ve got to go through the whole procedure of a new machine coming in. There was just too many of them, too many problems. Quite frankly, the stuff coming from Spain, I think I got two shipments in and then said “forget it”. About a hundred units each.

Q : Tell me about the circumstances of the Dragon factory visits, how did they come about?
A : When I was interested in starting to import them, I wanted to go and see the setup. So that was my first visit to the factory in Wales. And then I had a couple of visits when we started getting these technical problems. We couldn’t sort them out over the phone, and I ended up taking machines over there. I don’t remember a lot about the factory in Wales. The Dragon 64 colour scheme reflected the weather, that’s what I remember of going over there. But they had a couple of bright young people. I went two or three times.
Eurohard had an office in Madrid, which was very difficult for me, because they worked on Madrid time, which meant that you were eating at who knows what time, and there was a very laid-back attitude to appointments. They had taken me to the Extremadura factory, middle of Spain, middle of the desert. My fondest recollection is stopping off for a wild asparagus omelet. Far more memorable than the factory. It was also difficult doing business (with Eurohard) as at the time they were more interested in expanding into South America.

Q : Any sightings of prototypes at Eurohard or Dragon Data, or anything else of note?
A : No, all I’d seen at Eurohard was a grey 128, with the twin 3.5” disk drives. It was just a mock-up, so I didn’t even see it working. But that I was interested in, because by that time I personally had started getting into the OS9 operating system. I actually had a demo running in my offices on a Dragon 64, with two dumb terminals attached to it, and it was actually working out as multi-user multi-tasking. The 128 was a nice little machine. I think not enough effort had been put into its development. It could have gone a lot further. The one I saw was basically the Dragon 64 box with a slightly different lid and in the lid were the drives, laid horizontally.

Q : Did anyone talk to you about new machines, products or plans for the future of the Dragon?
A : The 128 was mentioned quite a bit, but I was never given any dates of when it would be available. Not even as a pre-release. And don’t forget, I was a Dragon fan myself as well, so I would have loved to get my hands on one.

Q : It seems like you had quite fruitful factory visits, because you came back with piles of notes.
A : That’s what I’d gone for, to get answers to these questions and avoid having to send the stuff back. Don’t forget, their warranty system was basically 2% discount. That was their warranty. And there’s not very many 2%s in all the stuff that can go wrong with a Dragon. All the test cartridges (I have) came from the factory in Wales, when I was having all these problems. In fact I ended up putting each machine on a soak test before I sold it, just to make sure we don’t have that Dragon back within a couple of days.

Q : Did you sell much OS-9 software or anything from Dragon suppliers apart from Dragon Data?
A : Nope. OS-9 did not catch on. I did have composite video monitors from Prandoni in Milan, Italy. National and Datax cassette recorders and Microdeal software. Microdeal we sold almost exclusively, and that would come from them directly.

Q : When it came to Dragon Data and Eurohard going bust, did you get everything you’d ordered, or were you out of pocket?
A : It didn’t leave me out of pocket. But by the time they went bust I was already importing IBM PC clones from Southeast Asia. I had changed my teaching to being IBM clone based, which upped the level a bit on people’s ideas.

Q : So why did you keep so much of the Dragon kit from your training school after they’d gone bust and you weren’t teaching on them anymore? Why not just sell it all off?
A : I kept one of everything, just thinking that one day some mad Englishwoman would come along and ask about it.

Q : Fair enough. Looking back at the training school, how many people do you suppose you taught to use a Dragon?
A : I had sixteen in each class, four classes a year, times two, about three years on Dragons, so maybe about four hundred people. For Malta, that’s quite significant. If you think of the number of people in IT, not so much now, but ten years ago, who had done the courses with me, they all remember the shop. When the boys were in school, they’d come back with computer homework that the teacher had copied from my courses. And then later when the government was training people on how to use computers it was all my coursework as well. Nothing you could do about it.

Q : So, it all started with the Dragon and snowballed from there?
A : That’s about the size of it!


** Dominic Mintoff was the Prime Minster of Malta from 1971 – 1984.

A big thank you to David and Helen for taking the time to do the Q&A.