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Computer History in the 1950s: Univac I

Ms. Inglish has spent 30 years working in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, and aerospace education for Active USAF Civil Air Patrol.

This is a UNIVAC I metal tape from 1955 that could store 3MB of data.

This is a UNIVAC I metal tape from 1955 that could store 3MB of data.

The First Electronic Computers Were Giants

The first computer I saw filled a large refrigerated room in an insurance company in the 1970s. The room was over half the size of my house!

The click-clacking, whirring machine beast required refrigeration - not air conditioning - to keep its circuits from burning up. We who were on tour of the facilities were not permitted to enter the room for fear of the temperature rising beyond the safety limit for the computer.

Outside that room on desk tops stood gigantic hand-cranked calculators. You needed to tap in the data, push buttons for mathematics operations, and then crank them like an antique car. Some of the machines were electric and did not need the cranks, but they were all very loud and caused some of us to have ringing in the ears for a while after the tour. The "UNIVAC I" is similar to those 1970s computers, but looks more sophisticated than any in the glass-walled "refrigerator."

Today, computers are tiny in comparison.

Descendent of ENIAC, Destined for Love.

UNIVAC is a name that is a combination of syllables and letters: UNIV-A-C. It means Universal Automatic Computer and was developed by Dr. Presper Eckert and Dr. John Mauchly, who had previously invented ENIAC, the computer ancestoir of UNIVAC. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Brewster was instrumental in developing the device along with it applications for use in the U.S. Navy.

Grace Murray Hopper sits at the UNIVAC I in 1960. She was an American mathematician and became Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy as a  pioneer in developing computer technology.

Grace Murray Hopper sits at the UNIVAC I in 1960. She was an American mathematician and became Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy as a pioneer in developing computer technology.

Electronic equipment has experienced a general history of its first products in a particular line being huge and bulky, reducing in size and price gradually. For instance, iPods are the size of a postage stamp in the early 21st century and a notebook computer is the size and thickness of a magazine.

UNIVAC took up the space in nearly a full standard office room in the 1950s.

Little did the investors or the U.S. Government know that UNIVAC would be used to find love on television.

Computing in a vacuum tube.

Computing in a vacuum tube.

Computers Were Big and Costly

A Long, Expensive Road

The US Census Bureau awarded a $300,000 grant ($3.8 Million in 2019 dollars) to two scientist-engineers to develop a computer that could handle and process all data in the up coming US Census.

Thus, the two men began the development of their new creation in 1946. A viable design did not emerge until 1948, on the verge of financial ruin, despite an additional $100,000 allowed them by the Federal Government. The two developers were failing.

On a last minute financial bail-out, Eckert's and Mauchly's research and design company that had been set up to accept the government funding was absorbed by Remington Rand Corporation (Remington razors). In 1951, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation was renamed the Univac Division of Remington Rand.

The cost to build the first UNIVAC was $1 Million ($9.8 Million in 2019), which Remington Rand had to cover or face prosecution for interfering with and asking for more funding in a government project. Private business could not accept government funding in order to build products for private use.

Improvements and Forty-Six Giant New Computers

Forty-six UNIVACS were completed and provided to the US Government Census Bureau, the US Army, and to private businesses. The first private business to purchase the UNIVAC was General Electric in Kentucky; it was used to process large payrolls.

Prudential Insurance also purchased a UNIVAC. Compared to a human typist, its output rate was 60 words per minute, the goal of the usual high school typing class of the era. It was cheaper for Prudential to use the computer at the time.

UIVAC used magnetic tape, while IBM computers used punch cards; thus, UNIVAC was faster.

During the 1952 Presidential Election, UNIVAC predicted the outcome of the Dwight D. Eisenhower(R) against Adlai Stevenson (D) election.

UNIVAC was correct in predicting that "Ike" would win the election. This fact was hidden from the America public for a while (as per usual in the 1950s), to protect the reputations of the human political analysts. However, the information was leaked and the giant computer became famous, as well as accepted in business.

This business included Show Business and Art Linkletter used UNIVAC to pair up couples for guaranteed happy marriages on his 1950s TV show.

Univac 1232 at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution at Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. It once helped control satellites from Silicon Valley.

Univac 1232 at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution at Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. It once helped control satellites from Silicon Valley.

Little did the investors or the U.S. Government know that UNIVAC would be used to find love on television.

People are Funny

MC Art Linkletter had been active on the radio for a number of years and made a suscessful transition to TV.

Arts' successful primetime TV show began on radio in 1942 and made the transition with the host. People Are Funny featured guests chosen from the audience beforehand and they agreed to do funny stunts. David Letterman does similar bits in the 21st century. In the 1950s, it was a lot like Candid Camera, but with the victim's permission.

Some of the tricks were psychological, including a woman being hypnotiized into accepting a date with a man later in the week.

In the mid-1950s on the show, the huge UNIVAC was wheeled onstage by the producers. Linkletter used the computer to match volunteers in finding true love and marriage. He got quite a few volunteers and many marriages out of the bit. Some of the marriages lasted and some did not.

The couples, once introduced, had to do crazy stunts.

One couple agreed to dress live cavemen and spend their honeymoon in the caves just west of St. Louis. They camped out in part of the caves tour and when quided tour visitors came by, the cave people ran out and chased the visitors and then each other. Visitors and cave people had a good time for several days in this activity. Unfortunately, the couple later divorced.

Sotries such as this filled a year or two of shows on People are Funny, proving that people can, indeed, be funny and that computers can be used for a diversity of applications.

UNIVAC 1 now stands in the Smithsonian Insitution.

UNIVAC Influenced Society

A Light Hearted Look at Computers

Internet Visions from 1969

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Patty Inglish MS

Comments

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 26, 2010:

WOW! That's some pretty terrific experience. I'd like to know more about the 1108 now. Thanks for the information and for posting a comment, SamAntone.

SamAntone on February 26, 2010:

I read this hub with great interest because I used to work with a Univac 1108 in the late 70's at the University of Utah. I was amazed at how fast it was! I ran a program that was to search thousands of possibilities. In less than an second it did this, while doing at least 10 other jobs first. Later, when smaller computers came out with transistors, and some with printed circuits, I ran the same program and they took several minutes to complete the task. What made it so fast? My first thought is parallel processors, but I don't know that much about the 1108.

sudhakar on December 29, 2009:

very intersting

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 05, 2008:

Yes, a really high cost and a lot of room needed to build it. Everything was too big.

topstuff on March 05, 2008:

The cost to build was really much high.The UNIVAC history is explained in a good way