[ Retro GIF of the Week ] Twin Chinese Dragons

February 1st, 2013 by Benj Edwards

Apple I Smithsonian 1992 Retro GIFClick to see other views of this image: [ Original Size ] [ 2X Zoom ]

This week we're taking a look at another image that made the rounds in the BBS days, DRAGON6.GIF. In it, we see two digitally illustrated Chinese dragons who appear to be springing forth from a magical stone. Iridescent waves crash around them, and smoke curls throughout an ethereal void. The color palette is rich and bold, underscoring the image's Eastern art influence.

At the moment, the artist behind this amazing work of digital art remains unknown. Still, we can narrow down when the image was made and how by taking a look at its resolution, color depth, and file date.

The earliest file date I can find for this image, August 6, 1992, comes from a Profit Press Mega Demo CD file index hosted on cd.textfiles.com. If you look at the other GIF file dates on that CD, you'll notice that they all carry the same date. That means that DRAGON6.GIF wasn't created on that date; instead, that is most likely the date the GIF files were copied from one machine to another in preparation for CD authoring. File dates tend to get changed when files are transferred over modems, serial ports, and networks, so that may be what happened.

While the image has a "6″ in its file name, it doesn't appear to be part of a series by the same artist. Instead, it was most likely an arbitrary numbering scheme of someone who put multiple pictures of dragons into the same directory for download through a BBS system. (Bear with my nerdery here; sometimes numbers like that can help determine authorship.)

So we know it was made before August 1992 and that it is a 640×480 resolution image with 8 bits (256 colors) per pixel and an obviously rich color resolution (perhaps 262,414 or 16 million colors) whose size I can't pin down at the moment. (The color resolution information, which describes the ultimate number of colors the image can draw from, isn't set accurately in the GIF file, which may actually be a clue as to what program created the GIF. But that's for another day.)

Those stats rule out vanilla VGA machines and common 16-bit multimedia systems like the Atari ST series and the Amiga. The Macintosh II series, however, could easily create images of that resolution and color depth in 1992 when equipped with the correct video card.

An IBM PC could make an image like this in 1992 if equipped with a very expensive graphics card, but as I've discussed on earlier Retro GIFs, graphics cards of that capability were comparatively rare in the IBM PC world circa 1992. Macs were commonly used by artists for graphical tasks at that time, so I'm going to call it for a Mac, but I can't be 100% sure unless I think of a new way to dissect this image.

[ Update - 02/04/2013: After further research and analysis, I've decided that this image was likely created on an IBM PC compatible system, not a Mac. I will explain in a further update, but a key factor is that the colors in this image were drawn from an 18-bit palette, a characteristic of VGA-derived displays, whereas color Macs offered 24-bit palettes. ]

To make GIF analysis like this easier in the future, I'm working on an automated way to identify the provenance of various images based on historical data and comparative analysis. I'll keep you posted.

[ Wondering what a GIF is? Read the introduction to this column. ]

Retro GIF of the Week Fact Box
Source File Name: DRAGON6.GIF
Oldest Known File Date: August 6, 1992
Source File Format: GIF - 87a (non-interlaced)
Dimensions: 640 x 480 pixels
Color Depth: 8-bit (256 color)
Color Resolution
(palette size):
18-bit (262,144 colors)
Origin Platform: Likely IBM PC
Derived From: Unknown
Creation Date: Circa 1987 - 1992
Artist: Unknown
If you know more about the origin of this image, please leave a comment.

13 Responses to “[ Retro GIF of the Week ] Twin Chinese Dragons”

  1. idisjunction Says:

    I don't know much about computer graphics, but wouldn't the RGB values help rule out certain color resolutions? From what I can tell, all the non-zero values are odd, which would make 16 million color unlikely.

  2. Benj Edwards Says:

    I was thinking the same thing, idisjunction. I noticed the odd (non-even) RGB values as well, and I can't explain that at the moment.

    I tried conversion of the whole range of 16-bit and 18-bit values to 24-bit, but both results produced both even and odd values, so I am not sure what is going on with this image. Does anyone have any ideas?

  3. pchp Says:

    What program recommends for see it in MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1?

  4. PedroC Says:


    The best (IMHO) DOS image viewer was CSHOW. It would run off of my 286 with little problems.

    For Windows 3.1, I would go with LView.

  5. pchp Says:

    thanks pedro

  6. Benj Edwards Says:


    For DOS, I always used CSHOW (like PedroC) or a program called SVGA to view GIFs. On Windows 3.1, I probably used LView for a while until I discovered Paint Shop Pro. I think version 3 was the last I used for Windows 3.1. I will try to put up some archives of them for download soon, though I'm sure you can find them somewhere out there.

  7. pchp Says:

    I found the CSHOW 8.5 and LVIEW 3.1. If you have a early version would be happy.

  8. Chris Says:

    This image was named "DRAGON.Productivity" and was included on (at least) the "Art 1″ diskette of Deluxe Paint IV (/AGA) for the Amiga. It may indeed have been painted in DOS Dpaint 2 due to its colour space (256 colours / 18-bit palette) since the AGA Amigas could handle 24-bit in a 640×480x256 paletted mode.

    So, the original artist was somebody working in Electronic Arts. :-)

  9. Benj Edwards Says:

    Very cool, Chris. Thanks for that info. I'll update the entry to reflect that soon.

  10. dr.zeissler Says:

    Hi, VERy interesting. I am collecting Retro-Images für my old Systems. TGAII ,EGA,VGA. Currently I like quickview103 the most (qv103). It displays put to 24Bit images on a 286/10 VERY fast. For EGA I use cshow/2show. To capture Images in EGA I currently use "camera" from DP2, but if the Palette is not the standard one the colors are incorrect. I'll try grabEGA instead. Can You tell we, where to get old color reduced images in original format (Gif, etc.) ?
    I have collected some EGA/VGA Art and will try to manage to upload it to the iCloud.

  11. Benj Edwards Says:

    Dr. Zeissler,

    There are quite a few old GIFs available on http://cd.textfiles.com . They are on various graphics collection CDs from the early 1990s. Very cool that you collect these images — I'd love to see what you have put together so far.

  12. Jonathan Stray Says:

    I remember this fantastic image and still have a copy. My file is "dragon.gif" and is dated Feb 4, 1992, 4:46pm.

  13. Kevin Matzdorf Says:

    Thanks for this website! I also remember this image and tried to dig up a copy in my old floppies. Was not able to find a GIF version.

    Then I saw Chris's comment that this image was included with Deluxe Paint 2! I had the PC version of that, so then I found my dpaint2 install disks, and was able to install from the disk. And there in the "artwork" directory was "DRAGON.LBM", dated 7/26/1989, 1:24pm, 188,340 bytes! It is 640×480, 256 colors. Was able to open it with Paint Shop Pro.

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