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Dragons, zebras and doorstops - building a collection of Welsh computers

The BBC model B (top) and the Acorn Electron.
The BBC model B (top) and the Acorn Electron.
The Dragon 32 (left) and the Spectrum Plus.
The Dragon 32 (left) and the Spectrum Plus.

In the early 1980s Wales produced many of the world's home computers. Over the years, Amgueddfa Cymru has been trying to add an example of every computer manufactured in Wales to its collection.

In 1943, Thomas Watson snr, Chairman of IBM, imagined that the future world computer market would be made up of only five different computers. However, in the 1980s, there were at least six different models being manufactured in Wales alone.

Zebras and Dragons

The 'Zebra' and 'Dragon' were both types of early computers.

The 'Zebra' was produced in the 1960s. Only forty were ever made and most of them were exported overseas. The Zebra machine in the Museum's collection was manufactured in Newport, s outh Wales and was donated by Cardiff University.

The 'Dragon' was available in two versions, the thirty-two and the sixty-four. These numbers refer to the amount of memory each machine had. Although this is much less memory than computers today, this was considered very powerful in the 1980s.

Tracking down information about where early computers were made has proved difficult. However, a number of scrapbooks providing useful information were discovered in the Glamorgan Record Office, and were donated to the museum by 'AB Electronics' of Abercynon. The scrapbooks revealed that AB Electronics had produced most of the computer models made in Wales, and also provided information about other Welsh manufacturers.

The Electron & The BBC

The Electron was made by the Acorn Company, best known for producing the BBC computer. It was much cheaper and less powerful than the BBC, which was the most powerful and expensive home computer available in the 1980s. Although primarily used as an educational machine some of the games written for the BBC are some of the best produced for any computer of any era.

The scrapbooks showed that a number of Electron machines were manufactured by AB Electronics and a Welsh made machine was kindly given to the museum by the Chairman of the Electron User Group.

The books also showed that three firms had manufactured the BBC in Wales: AB Electronics of Abercynon, Race Electronics of Llantrisant and ICL of Kidsgrove. A dealer in vintage Acorn hardware gave the museum a BBC computer, for its collection, that had been manufactured by Race Electronics.

ZX Spectrum

Despite the Spectrum's popularity and availability, locating a Welsh-built model was difficult. Once again AB Electronics at Abercynon had made the Spectrum, but the majority had been produced by the Timex factory in Dundee. Eventually the Museum did manage to obtain an example of a Spectrum Plus built by AB Electronics and added it to its collection.

Torch Computers

The AB scrapbooks referred to 'Torch Computers of Cambridge' who had a factory in Caernarfon and built machines aimed at the business market. After contacting the company, they generously offered us an example of a machine built in North Wales.

The Museum now only needs three machines to complete its collection of computers made in Wales. One of these is the Apple iMac manufactured by the LG Corporation of Newport.

There are many websites on the internet which can give you more information about early computers. Some sites also offer software for the early machines and there are even programs to run on your modern PC which mimic the behaviour of the old machines, allowing you to see how much computers have moved on.

Article Date: 15 June 2007

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