You need only look in your pocket to find evidence of how far computers have come. From the monolithic vacuum tube mainframes of yesteryear to the dizzyingly complex smartphones we now take for granted, the evolution of our computational devices is as fascinating as it is rapid. But the technology wasn’t dropped into our laps overnight, it’s taken a great deal of iteration and the odd breakthrough to reach this point. As it is with most things, sometimes a look back is important to keep things in perspective.
THE UNIVERSAL AUTOMATED COMPUTER
The world of pre-microchip computers is a bit of a tangled mess. These systems, incredibly advanced for the time, weighed multiple tonnes, cost millions of dollars, and were sold in small quantities to government agencies, large corporations, and prestigious Universities. Because of the limited applications of these behemoths and the rapid pace in which they were developed, keeping track of things like specs and model numbers can be difficult. For example, the Binary Automatic Computer (BINAC) is technically the first commercial computer, but when the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation delivered it to their first and only purchaser, Northrop Aircraft Company, it was broken and failed to work correctly after it was transported and reassembled.
The Universal Automated Computer I (UNIVAC I) is therefore more commonly (though not accurately) thought of as the first commercially available computer, being more widely adopted throughout the United States starting in 1951. To say the UNIVAC was massive would be putting it lightly. The system weighed around 13 metric tonnes. The central computer, consisting of 13 bays of equipment, was 4.3mx2.4x2.6m while the fully assembled unit took somewhere in the realm of 35.5m2 of floor space. This was before semi-conductive microchips, so the whole unit was packed full of vacuum tubes – about 5,600 of them in all.
THE EXCITING WORLD OF UNIVAC
So what was this big, expensive machine actually used for? Essentially just data-sorting and computations, such as payroll and analysis of sales performance. While today, these tasks can be done relatively simply and more effectively with the right software, it was quite a complicated feat back in UNIVAC’s day. Input was done through up to 10 reel-to-reel tape drives (not punch cards, as you may have presumed) and an electric typewriter. Processing a report was quite intensive, but quicker and less prone to error than the old pen and paper method.
Most famously, UNIVAC was used to accurately predict the results of the 1952 United States presidential election. The CBS television network provided a UNIVAC I with a sample of just 1% of the tallied votes, which it used to correctly predict that Dwight Eisenhower would win, despite the fact that, at the time, the popular prediction was that Adlai Stevenson would take the office. The prediction was so against conventional wisdom, in fact, that CBS initially didn’t report UNIVAC’s result until after it became apparent that it was correct.
THE UNIVAC IMPACT
Though only 46 UNIVAC I computers were produced, this was enough to make the system almost synonymous with “computer” during its heyday. Even though it was essentially a room-sized, less convenient predecessor of Microsoft Excel, its accomplishments brought the public’s attention to the exciting possibilities of computers and made it an icon of the Atomic Age.
Remington Rand, the original producer of the UNIVAC, struggled to keep up with customer demand and began to lag behind competitors, such as IBM. The turning point was when IBM managed to beat them out in obtaining a critical military defense contract, which provided IBM with, not only a lucrative opportunity, but access to classified research that gave them the technological edge over their competitors. UNIVAC systems continued to be iterated on and produced through to the mid-1980’s, but the systems were quickly eclipsed by offerings from other companies.
History now shows that IBM left a bigger footprint on the technology we use today, but when computer nerds like those of us at Just Fix It think about those massive, vacuum tube filled monstrosities that once took up entire rooms within universities, we tend to think of the UNIVAC. We’re just happy we don’t have to troubleshoot one.