Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 14, 2015


June 14, 1951: UNIVAC is dedicated by the United States Census Bureau. UNIVAC was the first American computer designed for business and administrative use. Programmed with relatively simple arithmetic and data transport routines, it did not deal with complex numerical calculations used with scientific computing. UNIVAC competed directly against punch card machines although in its original state, it could neither read nor punch cards. This shortcoming made it a difficult sale to companies who had backlogs of data stored on cards which would have had to have been entered into the machine. The problem was eventually corrected by add on hardware – the UNIVAC Card to Tape converter and the UNIVAC Tape to Card converter which transferred data between punch cards and the magnetic tape used by the computer.

Even with this update, sales were not what Remington Rand Company (the maker of the computer) had hoped for. They partnered with CBS to have the computer predict who would win the 1952 Presidential election. Adlai Stevenson was favored by the pollsters but UNIVAC predicted a landslide victory going to Dwight Eisenhower. The computer was correct. This helped boost the public’s awareness of the power of the computer. Even before the elections, the first sales of UNIVAC were to the US government. The first was to the Census Bureau who purchased it during a formal ceremony on March 31. The machine was dedicated on this date in another ceremony. It was the sole fully setup model and the company needed it for demonstration purposes so the machine did not actually ship until December.

The Census Bureau had the machine installed at Suitland, Maryland. The next year (1952) two more computers were purchased with one going to the US Air Force at the Pentagon and the other to the US Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. Finally, in 1953 a UNIVAC was purchased by an entity not the government when New York University purchased one, although it was for the Atomic Energy Commission. Two more were sold in 1953 and by 1954 business boomed with twelve sold. General Electric was the first business to buy one (after Remington Rand actually purchased one to use in its sales office). Metropolitan Life was the next business. US Steel was the first company to buy two with one for their Pittsburgh plant and one in Gary, Indiana.

The original price tag was $159,000 ($1.5 million today) but the price rose as time went on and by the end of production of UNIVAC I, the cost had risen to between $1.25 and $1.5 million or about $13 million today. Unlike IBM, Sperry Rand did not have enough money to donate many computers to universities, but they did give three: to Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. They sold 46 systems in all before technology progressed and outstripped the machine. The behemoths were powerful machines and an insurance company in Tennessee managed to keep theirs up and running until 1970 for 13 years of service.

UNIVAC a device, which contained 20,000 vacuum tubes, occupied 1,500 square feet and weighed 40 tons there was also a laptop version weighing 27 tons. – Dave Barry

The earliest admonition we had about the computer was to quit using the phrase electric brain. The folks in Philadelphia tried to convince us that the UNIVAC didn’t have a brain, and that whatever we fed into it would determine what we got out of it. – Walter Cronkite

The UNIVAC introduced the use of the magnetic tape drive to be — for its time — a high-volume IO mechanism. – George Gray

Up until that point, every computer was one of a kind. They were really in it as a business to make a bunch of these. – George Gray

Also on this day: Which is Witch – In 1648, the first “witch” was hanged in Salem.
Early Computing – In 1822, Charles Babbage presented a paper on computing.
Maize – In 1789, Bourbon was first produced.
First Non-Stop Transatlantic Flight – In 1919, Alcock and Brown made it to Europe.
Auschwitz – In 1940, the prison camp opened.

* “Univac I at CHM.agr” by ArnoldReinhold – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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