How Hard Can It Be To Buy A Computer In Germany And Get It Back Home To The UK?

Some of the best adventures in the world of hardware hacking start in the pub. For three volunteers at the National Museum Of Computing in the UK, [Adam Bradley], [Chris Blackburn], and [Peter Vaughan], theirs started over a pint with an eBay listing for an old computer in Germany. No problem you might think, we’re well used to international parcel shipping. This computer wasn’t a crusty old Commodore 64 though, instead it was a room-sized IBM System/360 Model 20 from the 1960s, complete with the full array of peripherals and what seemed to be a lot of documentation and software media. It would need a Mercedes Sprinter, a large van, to shift it, but that seemed feasible. With a bit of frantic bidding they secured the auction, and set off for Germany to view their purchase.

Arriving at the machine’s location they found a little bit more than they had expected. In an abandoned building on a side street in Nuremburg there was an intact machine room full of the IBM computer cabinets over a false floor with all the machine cabling in place, and the only usable access was through a street door which hadn’t been opened in decades and which was obstructed by the false floor itself. To cap it all they found they’d bought not one but two System/360s, and also unexpectedly a 1970s System/370 Model 125. Clearly this was more than a job for a quick in-and-out with a Sprinter.

What followed became a lengthy saga of repeated trips, van hire, constructing ramps, and moving heavy computer parts to a hastily rented storage unit. Decabling a computer of this size is no easy task at the best of times, and these cables had spent many decades in a neglected machine room. It’s a fascinating read, and a very well-documented one with plenty of photos. The machines now sit in their storage units awaiting a return to the UK, and the trio are soliciting any help they can find to make that happen. So if you happen to own a European haulage company with spare capacity on your Germany — UK route or if you can help them in any way, donate or get in touch with them. We think this project has much more to offer, so we’ll be following their progress with interest.

These three intrepid computer hunters were brought together at The National Museum Of Computing at Bletchley, UK. If you find yourself within range it is an essential place to visit, we did so in 2016.

40 thoughts on “How Hard Can It Be To Buy A Computer In Germany And Get It Back Home To The UK?

    1. It’s still gonna take 100 years to even come close to the victims of 9/11, just as an example.
      And “getting shot” is like an American hobby too these days, so I would guess you are safer here ;-)

        1. My wife and i were watching a fairly bland movie Sunday night and I had to pull up crime statistics from the UNDC and various other sources before she would believe this. She only has facebook as her source of bad news but that seems to be enough.

  1. The title made me think this was going to be a bureaucratic nightmare caused by Brexit.
    I’m glad it isn’t that!

    We had a System 3 in our computer Lab back in 1986-87, it didn’t work, our instructor told us there was a farmer a hundred miles away who was interested in it… he had a System 3 in his barn.

    Do they get to keep the raised floor as well?

      1. The floor tiles were junk but I couldn’t see they evaluated the condition of the support posts and frames.
        If they’re not too rusted then they might be worth salvaging, possible rewelding, sandblasting and recoating as it could save them money (perhaps).

  2. We popped in last weekend, it was absolutely amazing! My Girlfriend was really set on going to Bletchley Park Manor, but we took a ‘wrong turn’ (easily done) and spent the afternoon in TNMoC instead which she loved.

    Also, my first comment after lurking here for more years than I care to remember. “Hello World!”

  3. Good thing it wasn’t a 3090 system, then they had to handle water cooling as well. Man that were beasts!
    But nice to see this old stuff still being cherished. Good work.

    1. So it’s rumored that those two 360’s were owned by Puma, and used for processing paper tape records into a more modern storage format by their financial department– you can actually see a lot of Puma sports equipment in the background of a lot the photos on their blog posts. I’m guessing once they were done with their task, they just abandoned the machines there when their lease ended. And the property owner, probably realizing how much it would cost to remove several thousand pounds of essentially scrap IBM mainframe, just left them there. As for when they abandoned them, why they spent this long untouched, and where Puma got them initially, are the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ parts.

  4. I would have loved to help! Especially since i was working these last months for a customer not far away (in the area of Strasbourg in France). Unfortunately, my project will end next week, and i have no clue about how to move all these stuff back to UK…

    I had some heavy video equipments delivered from UK to France: Sony Flexicart automatic cassette changers, for a total weight of about 1500kg, and it costed me about £1350. But the bad surprise was that the equipement cabinet (similar to 42U computer cabinet and weighting 300kg each) were lied down on the floor. They were supposed to be delivered vertically on their wheels, but the truck’s door was too low so they decided to lie them down to carry them anyway, without warning me. So we were only two (the driver and i) to lift them up back on their wheels! Not to say they have been quite damaged because of that :-(

    Just a word of warning about rental trucks: one can think that trucks with tail lift are made to move the heaviest loads. But in fact i’ve discovered that rental trucks with tail lift are allowed to move a maximum load of 700kg only! When the same truck without tail lift can handle 1200kg. Probably because tail lift weigths 500kg by itself, and because you cannot drive/rent a truck with more load capacity with only a car driver licence.

    So by reading that the processor unit was about 600kg by itself, the truck has probably been overloaded a few time! By no way you can use such a truck to fill it and drive back to UK!!!

    I will keep an eye on your progress. Good luck!

        1. I wrote the large part of the Flexicart interface for the automation system the French Belgacom (Skynet? (Polaris?)) system is using. I don’t know where they sourced their Flexicarts though.

  5. Yeah, might be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t get the admiration for this old stuff. I totally understand ‘understanding’ it, so we can build better future things; if you don’t know where you came from you can’t know where to go and all that. But what is the point in buying, transporting, refurbing stuff like this? I’d rather see this brainpower set loose on modern technologies solving modern problems. Don’t get me wrong, I’m libertarian to the core, and if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone, more power to you! I just don’t get it.

  6. I used to work for Acxiom UK (yeah, sorry) back in the late 80’s.
    They were a big iron IBM shop, with data centres about the the size of a small house.
    They never bought any of their mainframes, because apparently, back in the day, it cost $50K to decommission a site, so they would take them away for free and use them.
    They didn’t need the latest kit, as a direct mail company, so it worked for them

  7. when I was in high school around 1980, Exxon “donated” a machine (pre IBM/360). The school never tried to install it once it was noted it need 60A/3 phase power. I think my favorite thing was the hard drives with hydraulic head stepper motors and open pools of hydraulic fluid in the bases of the drives. It was miles of wirewrapped point to point wiring in a chassis that swung open so you could walk inside.

  8. Every time my friend Jack pulls a back musscle, there’s an interesting part of computer history to blame!

    What a great haul!!! Please watch your backs and move it 1 bit at a time (pun intended)

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