By Matthew Lasar | September 18, 2011
It was November 4, 1952, and Americans huddled in their living rooms to follow the results of the Presidential race between General Dwight David Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois. We like to think that our time is a unique moment of technological change. But the consumers observing this election represented an unprecedented generation of early adopters, who watched rather than listened to the race on the radio. By that year they had bought and installed in their homes about 21 million copies of a device called the television—about seven times the number that existed just three years earlier.
On that night they witnessed the birth of an even newer technology—a machine that could predict the election’s results. Sitting next to the desk of CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite was a mockup of a huge gadget called a UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), which Cronkite explained would augur the contest. J. Presper Eckert, the UNIVAC’s inventor, stood next to the device and explained its workings. The woman who actually programmed the mainframe, Navy mathematician Grace Murray Hopper was nowhere to be seen; for days her team had input voting statistics from earlier elections, then wrote the code that would allow the calculator to extrapolate the contest based on previous races.
To the disquietude of national pollsters expecting a Stevenson victory, Hopper’s UNIVAC group predicted a huge landslide for Eisenhower, and with only five percent of the results. CBS executives didn’t know what to make of this bold finding. “We saw [UNIVAC] as an added feature to our coverage that could be very interesting in the future,” Cronkite later recalled. “But I don’t think that we felt the computer would become predominant in our coverage in any way.”
And so CBS told its audience that UNIVAC only foresaw a close race. At the end of the evening, when it was clear that UNIVAC’s actual findings were spot on, a spokesperson for the company that made the machine was allowed to disclose the truth—that the real prediction had been squelched.
“The uncanny accuracy of UNIVAC’s prediction during a major televised event sent shock waves across through the nation,” notes historian Kurt W. Beyer, author of Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. “In the months that followed, ‘UNIVAC’ gradually became the generic term for a computer.”
That’s putting it mildly. By the late 1950s the UNIVAC and its cousin, the ENIAC, had inspired a generic sobriquet for anyone with computational prowess—a “BRAINIAC.” The term became so embedded in American culture that to this day your typical computer literacy quiz includes the following multiple choice poser:
Which was not an early mainframe computer?
But the fact that this question is even posed is testimony to the other key component of UNIVAC’s history—its famous trajectory was cut short by a corporation with a much larger shadow: IBM. The turbulent life of UNIVAC offers interesting lessons for developers and entrepreneurs in our time.
The machines and their teams
During the Second World War, two teams in the United States were deployed to improve the calculations necessary for artillery firing and strategic bombing. Hopper worked with Harvard mathematician Howard Aiken, whose Mark I computer performed computations for the Navy. John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert’s Electronic and Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) rolled out rocket firing tables for the Army.
While both groups served extraordinarily during the war, their leaders could not have thought about these devices more differently. Aiken viewed them as scientific tools. Mauchly saw their potential as commercial instruments.
After the conflict, Aiken obstinately lobbied against the commercialization of computing, inveighing against the “foolishness with Eckert and Mauchly,” at computer conferences. Perhaps there was a need for five or six machines in the country, he told associates; no more. But Aiken’s assistant Hopper was fascinated by the duo—the former a graduate student and the latter a professor of electronics.
Eckert was “looking way ahead,” Hopper recalled. “Even though he was a college professor he was visualizing the use of these computers in the business and industrial area.” The University of Pennsylvania sided with Aiken. The college offered Eckert and Mauchly tenured positions, but only on the condition that they sign patent releases for all their work. Both inventors resigned from the campus and in the spring of 1946 formed the Electronic Control Company, which eventually became the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.
Over the course of five years, the two developers rethought everything associated with computational machines. The result was a device that went way beyond the age of punch card calculators associated with IBM devices. The UNIVAC, unveiled in 1951, was the fruit of this effort.
“No one who saw a UNIVAC failed to see how much it differed from existing calculators and punched card equipment,” writes historian Paul E. Ceruzzi:
It used vacuum tubes—thousands of them. It stored data on tape, not cards. It was a large and expensive system, not a collection of different devices. The biggest difference was its internal design, not visible to the casual observer. The UNIVAC was a “stored program” computer, one of the first. More than anything else, that made it different from the machines it was designed to replace.
These characteristics would enable the UNIVAC to perform thousands more operations per second than its closest rival, the Harvard Mark II. And its adaptation of the entertainment industry’s new tool—magnetic recording tape—would allow it to store vastly more data. UNIVAC was quickly picked up by the US Census Bureau in a $300,000 contract, which was followed by another deal via the National Bureau of Standards. Soon a racetrack betting odds calculator company called American Totalisator signed on, purchasing a 40 percent interest in the company.