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Computer History In the 1950s: UNIVAC

Updated on August 23, 2016
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years of successful experience in medicine, psychology, STEM courses, and aerospace education (CAP).

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Promo for UNIVAC displayed in related exhibit in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Mr. Eckert (Center) with Walter Cronkite in a UNIVAC demo.
Promo for UNIVAC displayed in related exhibit in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Promo for UNIVAC displayed in related exhibit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. | Source
Mr. Eckert (Center) with Walter Cronkite in a UNIVAC demo.
Mr. Eckert (Center) with Walter Cronkite in a UNIVAC demo. | Source

Computers Become Smaller

The first computer I saw was in a large insurance company in the early 1970s.

The beast filled a large room that was refrigerated to keep its circuits from burning up. Outside that room on desk tops stood gigantic hand-cranking calculators. Some of them were electric, not needing the cranks, but they were all very loud.

Today, computers are tiny in comparison.

Computing in a vacuum tube.
Computing in a vacuum tube. | Source

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.

Electronic equipment has experienced a general history of its first prodcuts in a particualr 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 notbook 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 US Government know that UNIVAC would be used to find love.

This Unit Helped Control Satellites from Silicon Valley

Univac 1232 - Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia.
Univac 1232 - Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. | Source

More About UNIVAC

Computers Were Big and Costly

A Long, Expensive Road

The US Census Bureau awarded a $300,000 grant ($4 Million in 2016 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, 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.

Space Exploration Was Made Possible

Six UNIVAC 490s were installed at NASA facilities to guide engineers and astronauts in the Gemini and the Apollo space missions.

Forty-Six Giant 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 I | Source

UNIVAC Influenced Society

A Light Hearted Look at Computers

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.

Computers History Univac Mouse Pad, Mousepad (10.2 X8.3 X 0.12 Inches)
Computers History Univac Mouse Pad, Mousepad (10.2 X8.3 X 0.12 Inches)

I enjoy this mouse pad, because it presents a computer room much like the one I first visited in the early 1970s. The size of the computer was dumbfounding and the wheels of tapes going around made my head swim. I am glad to have witnessed it all firsthand and can remember it when I look at this mouse pad.


Internet Visions from 1969

© 2008 Patty Inglish


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      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.

    • profile image

      SamAntone 8 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      sudhakar  8 years ago

      very intersting

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

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

    • topstuff profile image

      topstuff 10 years ago

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