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Happy birthday, UNIVAC!

The massive machine helped usher in not just the computer age but the integration of forecasting the winner as part of election night reporting.

The Census Bureau dedicated the first commercially produced electronic digital computer in the United States on 14 June 1951 after taking delivery on 31 March 1951.

The UNIVAC 1 (Universal Automatic Computer I) was not an IBM product, although IBM had supplied punch card tabulating systems to governments around the world, including Hitler’s Germany.

Instead, it was branded Remington Rand.

By 1946, engineers Presper Eckert and John Mauchly had built, for the US Army, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer. The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) was “first used in a calculation for Los Alamos Laboratories in December 1945, and in February 1946 it was formally dedicated.”

Eckert and Mauchly launched a business and began developing their next computer. It took three years. And what did Remington Rand get?

[UNIVAC 1] weighed 16,000 pounds, used 5,000 vacuum tubes, and could perform about 1,000 calculations per second.

On 04 November 1952 the UNIVAC starred in the first national televised broadcast of a presidential election.

It was Walter Cronkite’s first election night broadcast for CBS. The computer “correctly predicted Dwight D. Eisenhower’s unexpected landslide victory.”

For CBS, using a computer was a bit of a gimmick — a sideshow. But for Remington Rand, the company that made the UNIVAC, this was an enormous gamble.


Before election night 60 years ago, the race between Stevenson and Eisenhower looked close. But early in the night, with just over 3 million votes counted, UNIVAC predicted the odds were 100 to 1 in favor of Eisenhower… The printout read 00 instead of 100 because the programmers never imagined needing an odd greater than two digits.

UNIVAC prediction, Ike wins
A printout of the UNIVAC prediction of the 1952 presidential election. Computer History Museum image.

Actual results:

Party Candidate Electoral vote Popular vote
 R Dwight D. Eisenhower 442 83.2% 33,777,945 54.9%
 D Adlai Stevenson 89 16.8% 27,314,992 44.4%
1952 election
1952 Presidential election results. The American Presidency Project at UCSB.

“UNIVAC I, as the first successful civilian computer, was a key part of the dawn of the computer age,” according to its Census description.

Remington Rand would sell 46 machines for more than $1 million each.

In 1955, the Sperry Corporation and Remington Rand merged, creating Sperry Rand (1955-1986). In 1986, Sperry would reluctantly merge with Burroughs (hostile takeoverto form Unisys. However, parts of the company live on through Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Technologies.

#scitech, computing, society   (144/365)
📷 Computer History Museum
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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