Safe CRT Monitor Shipping: IBM 5153 Makes it through DHL!

The last few posts were all about simulating the experience of CRT monitors, so let's talk about a real one for a change.  Specifically, we're going to discuss a tricky proposition: shipping a monitor internationally and still ensuring that it arrives in 1 (ONE) piece.

A bit of background: some 3 years ago I procured an IBM PC/XT 5160, very nicely tricked out, except that I had no matching monitor to go with it.  As I noted at the end of that post, the one I was after was IBM's 5153: it was introduced at the same time as the XT itself, so nothing else would complete this machine quite as nicely.  This monitor looks plain awesome in my book, just like IBM's other early PC-family displays (5151, 5154, 5175), even if they're not often celebrated as masterpieces of industrial design.  The 5153 is well-made, has good picture quality as far as CGA monitors go, and is still relatively common in the wild.

Problem is, the 5153's natural habitat isn't local to me.  Around here they're about as common as unicorns that defecate weapons-grade plutonium bricks; I don't know why that is, because IBM Israel started selling PCs here in 1983 or so, but I don't recall seeing 5153s around in the old days.  Monochrome 5151s sure, and plenty of IBM VGA monitors later on, but color monitors weren't that popular locally during the CGA era, and the ones I do remember seeing were cheap third-party ones.

I did pick up such a non-IBM CGA display locally, but it has problems of its own (a story for a different time).  If I wanted a 5153, there was no help for it but to seek for one in a foreign land.

That took me three attempts, so if you're only looking for the tips on doing it right, skip straight here.  But as they say, nothing beats learning from other people's mistakes, so I'll start with the two that didn't make it.

Fail #1

I knew this was going to be risky business - the XT itself got badly banged up on its way to me, and the 5153's plastic casing (especially with 3+ decades of age on it) is a far cry from the sturdy steel of the 5160 system unit.  However, I was hoping against hope that such a feat was still within the realm of the possible, despite the ever-accelerating global decline in the competence:cost ratio of any given service.  So off I went to eBay.

There was a very nice specimen listed for sale, in great condition with photos and all, by a reputable seller in the US.  A bit overpriced, or so it seemed to me, and maybe that was why it was still sitting there.  So I picked "make an offer", proposed something a little lower, and we had a deal.  The seller's business was mostly old electronics and computer parts, so I had some confidence that he'd be up to the task.  Just to make sure, I asked specifically, and he assured me that he had packed and shipped old CRTs before without problems.

There was just one snag: we both checked, and the only sanely-priced shipping option between our respective locations was through eBay's dreaded Global Shipping Program.  Everything I had heard about it was uniformly horrible, but I figured that this might be due to selection bias, and there was no reasonable alternative anyway.

What went wrong?  Have a look at this photo here, which the seller sent me when he shipped the thing.  There's some rigid styrofoam padding on the sides, but between that and the monitor, there's nothing but some bubble wrap and air bags.  No compressible soft material that could absorb impacts, and there's room for the whole thing to move around inside.  If you consider this to be adequate protection, please find another hobby before you wreck more irreplaceable vintage gear.  Just witness the aftermath below.

Granted, I've heard of similarly old CRTs surviving this kind of packaging, but that will only happen if you're extremely lucky, or maybe your chosen delivery service is having an off day.  In contrast, the Global Shipping Program was very diligent in carrying out its duty of destruction:

5153 #1 damage 5153 #1 damage 5153 #1 damage 5153 #1 damage 5153 #1 damage 5153 #1 damage
Check out that accurate surgical strike on the IBM badge - pretty impressive!

To state the obvious: the monitor proved completely dead when I plugged it in, and when I opened it up I found that the tube's neck had predictably snapped.  What happened was that the tube was dislodged from its mountings, moved around inside the case, and its weight was enough to make it punch through the plastic even at the bottom.  This is why CRTs should be shipped face-down, by the way, but more on that later.

The seller was unexpectedly forthright and repentant about it, and I got a full refund from eBay, including the cost of shipping (probably the only benefit of having used the Global Shipping Program).  Still, it was a big bummer regardless.  They're still printing new money, but nobody's making new 5153s.

Fail #2

My second attempt was again from the US, but this time from a friend who happens to be a collector and who values his hardware.  He went one better, and enlisted the help of yet another collector.  I preferred to wait a little longer and get an intact CRT, rather than rush it and receive yet another plastic-and-glass jigsaw puzzle; so we took our time and did our research.

That included how-to video tips from others who had done this multiple times, as well as real footage showing how carriers actually handle these package during the shipping process (not for the faint-hearted).  Eventually, this was what we settled on:

5153 #2, before 5153 #2, before 5153 #2, before
5153 shipping attempt, take II: before

Much better than the previous attempt, isn't it?  The cardboard is extra-strength, and this time the inner foam padding is soft, to absorb shock, but still firm and thick enough to hold everything together.  Another one of those grey foam pads went over the top.  Inside the bubble wrap there were two more foam pads: one over the screen and one across the rear panel.  More padding was wedged into the space that still remained around the monitor, so that it couldn't move around whatsoever.  To protect the guts and the tube itself, even the inside of the monitor was padded with more bubble-wrap (to be carefully removed before use, of course).

In hindsight, there were two remaining problems: the monitor was still packed base-down rather than face-down, and it wasn't double-boxed.  That was due to a size limitation that couldn't be avoided, but our research also indicated that carriers don't respect "this end up" anyway - they'll load and stack packages in whatever orientation that seems to fit in the truck, etc.  Then again, that may not be true in all cases, and I wouldn't be surprised if these two factors were exactly what doomed this one.

For the actual shipping, I found a consolidation/forwarding service that could take over on the East Coast and bring it here: they had good reviews, good prices, and stated that they won't open and repack your box unless you actually pay them extra for that.  My friend just had to ship it to them (via UPS), and as a domestic shipment that's less of a hassle.

After all the study and preparation, imagine my face when it finally arrived in a somewhat modified configuration:

5153 #2 after 5153 #2 after 5153 #2 after 5153 #2 after
5153 shipping attempt, take II, after: monitor mangled, plastic pulverized, tube totalled.

As thoroughly deceased as its predecessor.  Except that this one clearly had superior packaging, so I find it difficult to account for this truly stupendous level of damage.  The most promising theory is that several people jumped on it simultaneously, just before the delivery truck ran it over.  As my friend put it, it would've arrived in better shape if he had just smashed it himself before boxing it up.

Again, the odds might have been more favorable if it had been double-boxed and shipped face-down - who knows, maybe it would've survived.  But this is by far the worst shape I've ever seen an item arrive in, when you take into account how well it was boxed up, so I doubt it.  Someone just really went to town on this one.

Third Time's the Charm

After all of that, it took me months before I worked up the ambition to try and source another one.  I ended up getting an offer I couldn't resist, this time from a friend and collector in Germany, who happened to have an extra 5153 he didn't have a use for.  That's closer to me, so shipping costs were less of a problem, and the theorem "shorter travel distance = less (mis)handling along the way" seemed plausible.

His experience lay more in receiving CRT monitor shipments than in sending them, but he's sure received plenty of them, packaged to various standards of competence from "none" to "NASA" (true story).  Those that survived were already invaluable data points, given his first-hand knowledge of how they were boxed.  He had also witnessed plenty of examples of what not to do, and by now I had two of my own.

To add to that, we went asking for tips in the Vintage Computer Forums and did yet more research.  For various logistical reasons, our only viable shipping option turned out to be DHL, and his own experience in dealing with them wasn't exactly stellar to say the least, so their bureaurcracy required some study in itself.  All this took a while, and so did sourcing the right materials and so on, but even more so than the last time, speed wasn't a priority for me.

By this point experience dictated that the monitor will have to be double-boxed, and packed with the screen facing down.  For the benefit of aspiring future CRT shippers, let's go into some more detail.

First, some numbers.  We wanted to leave enough room for padding on each side of each box, so the dimensions of the monitor determined the sizes of both boxes (measurements are in cm):

  • IBM 5153: 40.7 × 39.2 × 29.7 (as per the specs)
  • Inner box: 50 × 47 × 42
  • Outer box: 70 × 60 × 50 (double corrugated cardboard)

The monitor was wrapped in a plastic bag, in case the package got rained on (or used as an emergency anti-flood bag), but as a bonus this also stops tiny grains of styrofoam from slipping through the vents in the case.

On the side that the front of the monitor was going to face, the inner box had four small piles of styrofoam in the corners, and a soft sheet in between as a shock absorber for the screen itself.  This side would go at the bottom, so the logic was to protect the glass face and to direct the force of any impact towards the corners of the plastic case (the strongest parts).  Softer foam cushioning went on the sides, where there was less space available, and additional firm padding was placed over the back and top of the monitor:

successful 5153, inner packaging successful 5153, inner packaging successful 5153, inner packaging successful 5153, inner packaging
Good CRT packaging: inside

The sealed inner box then went inside the bigger one (made of double-wall corrugated cardboard - this exact one on Amazon.de).  Each wall had two layers of firm styrofoam placed against it, and loads of packing peanuts filling the space all around the inner box, with an especially good helping at the bottom, where the front of the CRT would be.

successful 5153, outer packaging successful 5153, outer packaging successful 5153, outer packaging
Good CRT packaging: outside

The whole thing was sealed with loads of "caution, glass" tape all around it and clear "this side up" markings.  There's no telling whether the monitor was really kept face-down throughout the trip, but I'd like to think it helped.  The glass face of the tube tends to be the heaviest part, so when it's facing down, the whole thing's center-of-mass is closer to the bottom.  Impacts are less likely to cause flexing and to potentially displace the tube or snap its neck.

The thing spent almost 2 months in transit, due to holidays and pandemics conspiring to make shipping services even less proficient than usual (tracking stopped working pretty early on, and the system never even showed it leaving Germany).  When it arrived, it wasn't looking very promising at first:

successful 5153, unboxing successful 5153, unboxing successful 5153, unboxing successful 5153, unboxing successful 5153, unboxing
Final 5153 unboxing

Yup, the outer box looks pretty banged up.  Other than general signs of being knocked about, it seems to have been skewered by a forklift on one side, and drenched with water (or worse) on another.  That forklift's prong even made it to the inner box.  But as I opened it up, to my disbelief, the monitor didn't have even the slightest sign of damage!

successful 5153, working successful 5153, working successful 5153, working successful 5153, working successful 5153, working
It's alive!

You may note that it's not the most absolutely pristine 5153 ever - the plastic has some scratches and smudges here and there, something's scrawled with a marker on the top, and the picture is very slightly tilted.  I believe the beam focus isn't quite as sharp as it used to be either, although these photos don't do it any favors (it's better than it looks here).  OTOH, I knew all of that in advance, and none of it was acquired during the voyage.  Courtesy of the sender's top-notch packing job, it withstood even this close brush with total annihilation.

If you're planning to ship CRTs, I hope this post will help more of these old things survive the barbarism that they're pretty much guaranteed to encounter.  You can never know what fresh hell they'll choose to inflict on your package, but if these tips can prevent future horror shows like the first two above, then I've done my bit of public service.

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