How to get a computer get stuck in a lift? Ask an 'illegal engineer'

Settle in for a weighty story with plenty of gravity

On Call Welcome once again to On Call, The Register's regular Friday frolic through readers' memories of tech tasks that turned terrifying before trending towards triumph.

This week meet "Tyler" who wrote to inform us he once worked as an illegal engineer.

A word of explanation is perhaps in order. Tyler's actual title was "Customer Engineer" and he worked at IBM, in the fine state of Texas.

"The designation is/was actually illegal in Texas," Tyler told us, as in the Lone Star State "all persons called Engineers actually have to be both graduated and accredited." This FAQ suggests he's right – which explains why he told us IBM changed the job title to "Service Rep" about 1985 or so, "after legal threats from the state."

But we digress. When Tyler was a Customer Engineer/Service Rep, he often found himself working with the IBM 402 – an infamous accounting machine that ingested punch cards and spat out useful financial calculations.

Tyler told On Call the 402 was commonly called "pig iron" due to its daunting dimensions and mass.

"The machine was huge – six feet long, four foot high and wide – an almost solid chunk of metal parts weighing in the tons."

And sometimes it needed to be moved.

"A very entertaining book could be made from tales of such relocations – and mishaps – while being swung into windows by a crane, pushed over ramps built between rooftops of buildings, or hefted up a long set of stairs by a gang of grunts who had no idea of the danger they were in if they were a member of the group that was pushing rather than pulling," Tyler told On Call.

One such move he witnessed saw the team tasked with shifting a 402 consider using the stairs. That route was rejected as too narrow, and featuring too many 90-degree corners.

"The 402 sat in the office foyer for a couple of days as 'experts' were consulted."

The resident experts were actually the building's "janitor and an ancient maintenance man."

Those worthies decided the building's elevator could do the job – if the 402 were turned onto one end.

"Unfortunately, enough muscle was found to perform such an awesome feat," Tyler recalled. "Once the pig iron was firmly sitting on the floor of the lift, a man climbed on top of the machine to 'pilot' it – his task to push the proper button then wait until the doors reopened to the proper floor." On that floor, people would wait to retrieve the 402 and place it in a new home.

Tyler told us that, while the experts had correctly appraised the volume of the elevator, they hadn't consulted the "very prominent plaque that spelled out its maximum load."

Said plaque specified the lift was rated to carry a few humans – but not a machine of sufficient heft to earn the name "pig iron."

The folks waiting for the elevator to arrive therefore waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

And then started to look for the elevator car, and the 402 it contained.

"A nervous check of the basement brought the welcome news that at least it had not descended at speed to the nether regions of the building," Tyler wrote. Some extra investigation revealed it was halfway between floors.

Where it had stuck.

Tyler told us the ensuing chaos involved "fire departments, rescue squads and news reporters" as the chap riding the 402 in the elevator was retrieved.

Next came the long and expensive process of erecting a temporary hoist on the roof to extract the 402 and the elevator car from the elevator shaft.

Tyler's no spring chicken, so admits his memory isn't what it was. But he's as sure as can be that he never saw the manager responsible for the 402's journey after the day of its fateful move.

Have your attempts to move computing machinery hit roadblocks? Click here to send your story to On Call and we may feature it on a future Friday. ®

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