Although there is some interest in vintage keyboards in the mechanical keyboard community, there is generally not as much interest in complete vintage computer systems. However, I would argue that the IBM 5100 is among the most well known of all vintage computers around here. This is most likely a combination of these things:
- The keyboard uses IBM's now famous beam spring switches
- It's among the first portable computers ever made (if not the first).
- It was referenced heavily in the popular anime / visual novel series Steins;Gate, which is itself based on the story of John Titor who claimed to be a time traveler who was in search of one to save his dystopian future.
I feel like the story of how rare and unusual treasures are acquired can be really interesting in of itself, and this 5100 is no exception. In my case, my interest in the 5100 was reinvigorated by this ebay listing that I am sure some of you have already seen:
https://www.ebay.com/itm/Rare-working-I ... fresh=true
This unit is definitely in better shape than mine, but unfortunately the asking price is also just below an astonishing $8000 USD, which makes it out of reach for just about all of us.
This listing ended up making me curious enough to learn much more about the 5100 than I had previously known, and so I ended up checking out various websites with information on vintage computers. Eventually, after carefully reading the comments section for one of these sites, I saw a post stating that this particular 5100 was for sale, with great preference to local sales. This was about three weeks ago, and the post was dated in September. The seller left their email address in the comment, so I decided to ask if it was still for sale anyway even though it was definitely a long shot. About two weeks then past by since I made the inquiry, so I figured it was long sold out.
We now arrive to one week ago, where the seller finally responded to my email! He told me that he still had it but was also feeling wishy washy about selling it, and also strongly preferred local sales, mainly because he was worried about shipping something so heavy (it weighs around 50 lb by the way!). We then had a lengthy back and forth that took place over the span of a few hours, where I explained my experience in shipping heavy vintage electronics and my passion for vintage IBM computer keyboards. The seller in turn explained that the 5100 was given to him as a reward for helping a company write some software back in the 1970's when he was still high school. He pretty much left the machine in his attic for the next few decades mostly undisturbed, though it has gotten quite dirty as a result, and probably some rust on the inside.
After the reminiscing was over, I asked the seller what price he was thinking about selling it, and to my surprise it was $1000 plus shipping. That's about inline with what your run of the mill beamspring in this condition would cost you, but still a very good deal for something as rare and special as an IBM 5100. Needless to say, it did not take long for me to accept the offer. The seller quickly got it ready for shipment at a UPS store, and so I patiently waited. He was located on the east coast while I am on the west coast, so I had to wait almost a whole week before it arrived to me today.
Even though I went through all the effort to convince the seller that shipping it should be fine, I was still a bit anxious, especially at the moment the package arrived to me:
I guess this picture does not do it justice, but I was very disappointed in how the carrier (UPS) handled the package. In spite of the many fragile stickers on the box, it was pretty badly damaged. There was also some room for the unit to wiggle around in the box as I moved it. Thankfully a mountain of bubble wrap awaited me when I opened the box, giving me some reassurance that there wouldn't be an physical damage to the exterior of the unit:
After digging through all of the packaging, I was elated to see what I had asked for arrived to me pretty much intact:
The seller even left me a friendly message:
This thing is definitely even more impressive to see in person, in spite of how dirty it is. One thing I like about the 5100 with respect to its successors was the black and white color scheme of the keycaps, much like my beloved 3278. Furthermore this model supported both the BASIC and APL programming languages, and so there are APL characters on the keycaps as well.
The weight is also quite impressive at around 50 lb. In spite of how badly it was handled in transit, I could not see any visual damage to the case. This came right after seeing many people post some pictures of their keyboard cases getting ripped apart during transit on the mechkeys discord. Just goes to show how impeccable IBM's dedication was at the time in regards to selling products that were meant to last, in contrast to the mass market crap that we use today.
I still need to spend more time deconstructing the unit, but I managed to get one rather nice picture with the top off:
Does it work?
Unfortunately the short answer is no, and that is part of the reason for the price. The seller told me that it worked before he left it in storage. He tested it about a month ago and it was able to boot it until it failed in self test:
The seller's theory is that oxidation has caused a bad connections in the card cage. snuci reached out to me after I initially posted the news about my IBM 5100 acquisition last week, and warned me that I will very likely need to to fiddle with this part of the machine if I have any hopes of getting it to work. I couldn't resist the temptation and did attempt to turn the unit on before writing this post, but things have gotten worse in transit: The screen doesn't turn on and the "Process Check" light stays on. Most likely too much wiggle room in the box caused some of the components to get loose. I can't blame the seller for this since I said leaving the packaging up to the shipper would be fine based on my previous Unsaver experience. Goes to show that no carrier is consistent.
In any case, this is a story to be continued. My plan is to restore this machine to the best of my ability and ideally get it cleaned up and working, but I do not yet know if the latter is possible. My main priority right now will be to take the cage out and see how the cards look, then see how much improvement I can make after cleaning up the interior. I intend to take the keyboard module apart and examine that afterwards. This is all very much a work in progress.