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Picking the President

The Univac introduced the public to computers with its 1952 election night forecast.
September 1, 2004

“Its awfully early, but Ill go out on a limb,” read the printout, just above the prediction that the winner of the 1952 presidential election would be Dwight Eisenhower. Onlookers were skeptical, but with only 1 percent of the vote counted, the Universal Automatic Computerbetter known as Univachad calculated the winner.

The demonstration was a milestone in the pioneering machines somewhat shaky journey from the laboratory to the real world. The Univac was created by J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, University of Pennsylvania scientists who in 1946 left academia to form a computer company. Financial woes forced the pair to sell the business to New York-based Remington Rand, though they continued to work from their Philadelphia offices. In 1951, Remington Rand shipped the first Univac to the U.S. Census Bureau. Weighing 13,000 kilograms and boasting more than 5,000 vacuum tubes, the Univac multiplied figures more than 50 times faster than the eras punch-card calculators.

Sales were limited at first to a few government agencies. Then, in 1952, Remington Rand reached an agreement with CBS to have a Univac predict a winner early on election night. The computer worked from the company offices while the station set up a dummy Univac console as a studio prop. At 8:30 p.m. on November 4, the Univac churned out a forecast based on early returns from a few states and past voting patterns. It predicted 438 electoral votes for Eisenhower and 93 for Adlai Stevenson, with odds of 100 to 1 that Eisenhower would win. This result alarmed its creators, for polls had indicated a much closer race. Convinced of an error, the company fiddled with the program to produce odds of a mere 8 to 7 in favor of Eisenhower, which CBS duly reported.

As the night wore on, however, it became clear that the landslide was real. The actual electoral-vote count was 442 to 89 in favor of Eisenhower, amazingly close to the Univacs original prediction. In spite of Remington Rands initial loss of nerve, the stunt worked. For the next several years, Univac was synonymous to the public with the word computer.

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