An AS/400 Romance Continues
September 7, 2004 Jeff Beddow
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
–Henry David Thoreau
“I bought a mainframe IBM to be my personal computer because I wondered what there was to learn about the tipping point, when America had gone PC, and broke into millions of microprocessors washed up on the shore of a bourgeoning hacker-frenzied state, ruled by the small, for the smaller, and promising the smallest. I did not want to learn, when I came to die, that I had given up life itself in giving up size, gravity, and honor in this age of nanopromises made and broken in picoseconds by microsouls. And I bought a mainframe IBM because, in the paradox that is America, I got a big beautiful machine for cheap, and it was cool.”
–Zeitguy (my online alter ego)
I bought a mainframe computer on eBay for $6.50. Technically it was a “midrange computer,” but the distinction is lost on people who think a “computer” is the size of a smallish gravestone. This was as big as a refrigerator, and heavier by far. When I got it, I had no terminal to log on with, no knowledge of the system itself, and I did not even know if it worked or if I could get juice to it. I had just a wild-eyed hope and a devoted wife, whose faith in me was about to be tested to yet another deviation from the norm.
I won the system on auction the previous Tuesday. On Wednesday I drove up to the computer salvage shop, where it sat among the dusty, tin-plated, used PCs like a hulking Sumerian deity.
The ad on eBay gave me no sense of its size and bulk. It came up to my chin, and I am 6′ 3″. Yards of cable of different sizes and shades of black spilled out of the back. The lower front panel and entire back panel were leaning against the rolled steel cabinet. It was built like a General Motors sedan from the ’50s, with an armor-thick steel case and a perforated stainless steel interior rack, holding tiers of beautifully crafted gizmo cages, all pinned together with shiny brass machine screws. I was sure the rack could have held the weight of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle without buckling.
The power cable caught my eye; the plastic plug housing was as big as a coffee cup. The gray cable that snaked out of the plug and looped for a dozen feet around the other coils of data cables was as thick as a garden hose. I saw that it needed a 240 volt appliance circuit. The power supply had a dozen outlets feeding the cards and rack boxes in their turn. There were five separate circuit breakers. This unit looked more than battle-hardened; it looked like it could survive in the Antarctic or the jungles of Ceylon with a long enough extension cord. I would later find this was not far from the truth.
Despite the fear inspired by the sheer exuberant over-engineered weight and lethal electrical bristle of it, I was in love. Or perhaps because of it, for, as Rilke said, “Beauty is an angel that deigns not to destroy you.” And I could see many ways that this gorgeous machine could shock, scorch, balk, topple, or crunch unwary flesh, from pinched fingers to jellied skull case flattened underneath its weight.
This was a computer.
A bright, buff young woman at the salvage shop named Jenni pointed to a nearby pair of perforated stainless steel cages with small control interfaces and lug handles. “Do you want to take the hard drives with you?” she asked. I agreed, and before I could stop her she had hauled one off the floor and was headed for the door.
Just then a burley giant in a sleeveless tee came from the other direction and eyed her baggage. “What is that?” he asked.
I was wondering the same thing. It might, I thought, have housed one of the Paleolithic 12″ or 15″ multiplatter IBM drives that barely held 5 megabytes in the heyday of mainframes. She set it down with little effort. I bent over and read the label that assured potential buyers that the reconditioned parts in the unit were certified to perform as well as new, and, to watch your toes: it weighs 100 lbs.
My newest 80 gigabyte hard drive on the PC at home weighs just over 3 pounds. It is only as small as a paperback. I figured that the new technology held 1,600 times the amount of data of the steel-plated suitcase Jenni had set down. Later I would find out that the “suitcase” only carried 2 gigabytes in multiple small drives. I felt like an archeologist directing the transport of a massive Egyptian stele to the home museum, and guessing was part of the fun.
The big guy went into the back room and came out with a 5′ 6″ coworker. They bent over and each grabbed a lug handle on the metal box, lifted, and headed out the door. They grunted slightly as they made the turn. Jenni smiled and went back to work, and I figured out what to do next.
I had spent a few hours on the Internet trying to size up my prize. It was listed as a “mainframe” 9406. I quickly realized it was one of the mid-life AS/400 systems–technically a midrange, built just south of us in Rochester, Minnesota. There were a number of feature cards, listed by IBM part number. A quick search on those numbers only turned up a few hits, mostly hard drives and a network card. The rest of the configuration, as well as the nature of the CPU, if there was one, was a mystery.
The AS/400 designation didn’t help, since that covered a range of units between 1988 and 2000. I didn’t know what kind of processor it had, if any, since upon my first look at the front panel I only discovered an off/on switch and a four-position key. My few hits on the history of the AS/400, as it was fondly referred to, led me to brief, uninformative touts for the reliability of and customer loyalty toward the machine.
The reality was, I didn’t know a thing about this box except that it could kill me with electricity or gravity.
Driving the van home with only the hard drives, I wondered how it would ride when I actually had the computer cabinet stowed aboard. I visualized the computer crashing through the floor of the van, or the van careening out of control as the brakes failed under the massive burden, or my arms being pulled out of their sockets as I tried to keep the system from falling out of the back.
I called my sons (both over six feet tall) to lift the drive units into the garage. They were surprised by the weight, but one of my sons discovered that each cage held quite a few smaller, recognizable SCSI drives packed together like puppies in a litter bed. So much for my fantasy of using the hard disks as sculptures in the house.
At home, the space situation didn’t look very good. There is probably never a good place to stash an IBM mainframe in a snug suburban house.
If I left it inside the garage by the door to the basement, I could probably reach the unused 240 volt dryer receptacle. In winter, when the 20-degree-below-zero temperature often was only modified to zero degrees Fahrenheit inside the garage itself, I could use it as a space heater to keep the short run of pipe in the garage ceiling from freezing. See how I think? A real problem solver. A multiplexer. You probably have one in your family, too.
It was beginning to dawn on the boys what I had gotten myself into, if these furniture-sized metal boxes were the disk drives of the machine. My wife, Sara, bless her, kept her distance from the emerging mystery.
That was Wednesday. Friday I drove back up to the shop, having emptied the van and moved the rear bench seat as far forward as possible. It occurred to me that an industrial unit like this had probably never been moved in a domestic van before, and it might not fit. I had measured the space, and it seemed to be able to hold a 60″ x 28″ x 36″ object, but I had measured it before moving the bench seat up.
Jenni met me at the salvage shop and took me back for a second look at the prize. It seemed even more impressive this time. What kind of society designs and builds machines like this only to discard them to the salvage yards and business recycling docks within a few years? I made a mental note to research the economics of the wholesale replacement of midrange computers that had occurred in the 1990s. I was sure that there were some staggering figures buried beneath the hype of “technological advance.”
It was time to move. I took the tape out and measured one more time. 60 inches should tuck the lead edge of the unit just within the closing plane of the rear gate. It should just fit. Barely. With millimeters to spare.
I went back inside the shop and re-measured the cabinet. The top hit the 62 inches mark on the Stanley tape.
Jenni was watching and let out a low whistle. Sixty two inches! It’s not going to fit!”
I visualized the unit bumping down side streets with the lift gate bungee-corded to the casters of the giant data whale inside, perhaps a red flag waving caution to the other drivers. It could work. I had come this far. Was I going to be stopped by two extra inches of cream-enameled American steel cabinet?
At least the cabinet was on casters. And what casters they were. In their four inches of indestructible polycarbonate diameter, secured by eighth-inch thick steel plate frames on half-inch thick axels, they represented the can-do spirit of American industry at its most incongruous and ambitious. I could hear the design committee chair saying, “Let’s build a data tank that needs a reinforced floor, and then put it on casters for convenience!”
“Let’s do it!” I said, and the four of us–myself and the three people from the chop shop–began the task of getting the system to move. It seemed as though it had taken root, and there was a lot of grunting and “Jeeze!” noises before Joe finally got one corner to swing away from the adjacent rack. We laid our shoulders into it and started to really roll at least two full feet before it schlumped to a dead halt. One of the black mystery cables had unreeled from the unit and fallen foul of the casters. My son took all the cables in a heap in his arms and followed close behind our staggering, grunting mass of steel, galvanized meat and shrieking ligaments. The cables looked like nothing so much as a gut-shot soldier’s entrails, and I thought, for propriety, we should stow them back in the wound of this soldier as we brought him to his final bivouac. But the physical effort got to me, and I stopped thinking anything at all.
Foot by foot, we crossed the front office, accompanied by the sound of someone eating nacho chips underneath the cabinet. Huh? I looked down. A thousand or so pounds concentrated on a fraction of a square inch of contact between the casters and the tile created an abstract diagram of cracked force in the tile, which did not bode well for my basement floor.
Getting it over the low threshold to the sidewalk took all our combined force, and we knew we had passed the point of no return. My van was down at the end of a nearby alley. The boys wheeled “Blitz,” as I christened my new AS/400, but I imagined it pulling loose and crashing through the brick wall into the hair salon next door, turning the patrons’ hair white to their roots before they ran out screaming.
They rolled it up to the back of the van intact. Now what?
How do you lift 1,000 sullen pounds over the bumper and lift the gate latch and slide it into place? One of us suggested that the carpeted floor mats from the back could be laid over the latch, and we could slide the bulk of the machine over that with little or no damage. I made it clear that “little” damage in this instance was not covered by any insurance, and it could be fatal to mortal flesh, so we needed to move in a pretty fool-proof fashion. Three of us tilted the cabinet to contact the bumper, and one held the carpet in place. Then an act of divine grace got the bottom of the cabinet tilted up and the mass of it stowed into the length of the van cargo bay. No one else in America that day was working that hard to get their PC into their van!
The lift gate wouldn’t close.
I was prepared for that. But someone noticed that the carpets had just covered the latch, so by holding a stick up under the gate as it closed, we managed to click it home.
Loaded. Unbelievable. The tires sagged out and looked ready to blow. The whole van swaybacked from the weight in its gut. But it held. Blitz was in.
I took a deep breath, and we were all grinning like kids who had stolen the other team’s trophy at homecoming. Whew! What a rush of unlikely pleasure I got from my $6.50 mainframe secured in my own van.
I didn’t know if the brakes would last for the 15 mile drive home. I had just replaced the front springs but didn’t know if the shocks and springs in the back would hold up very well under the burden.
But this was what it was all about. I had made the commitment to go the distance with this creature, come gravity or lightening, and this was part of the deal. We high-fived and the guys went back to their world of laptops and desktops with some relief. I edged out of the alley into the street and began the ride home.
On the way home, I thought again about how the body mattered to the imagination and vice versa. As we as a species drove deeper into the digital foothills of the 21st century, even the dullest members of society were having second thoughts about the effect of their digital passivity. A small minority drove themselves to further extremes of risk taking on rock faces, extreme marathons, or shark-petting vacations. A growing majority lapsed into a kind of body unconsciousness, however; a physical coma whereby they could barely remember, and couldn’t learn, anything that took muscle memory.
Or so it seemed.
I knew that my interest growing into obsession with the physical weight and industrial beauty of the mainframe had something to do with this. It had something to do with an elegiac feeling about the decline of ideals, of American industrial strength and engineering pride. Maybe manhood, yadda yadda. But I wasn’t sure of the details. At the moment, I just couldn’t wait to get the huge toy out of my ride.
Jeff Beddow is an amateur computer music composer, a professional Web page editor, a part-time writer, and a newly fledged collector of AS/400 “stuff” as he pioneers the frontier of “personal midrange” computing as a hobby and labor of love. If you have knowledge or parts of a 1993 vintage 9406 and want to help him light it up, contact Jeff at email@example.com.