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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Computer projected 1952 presidential winner

By Mark Ollig

On this date, 61 years ago this evening, CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite announced the winner of the 1952 presidential election. 

This was the first coast-to-coast televised broadcast of a presidential election night, and the CBS television network was featuring a computer’s computational analysis proficiency in determining the outcome of a presidential election.

The revolutionary computer CBS showcased that night was called the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC). 

The UNIVAC, a large mainframe computer manufactured by the Remington Rand company, was designed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. It was the world’s first commercially manufactured, electronic digital computer.

J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly are the same people who created a computational device called an Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, or ENIAC, which became operational in 1946.

For more about the ENIAC, check out the column yours truly wrote Sept. 30 at:

The UNIVAC used in 1952 took up a lot of physical space. Its equipment cabinets were approximately 25 by 50 feet in length.

A supervisory typewriter (made by Remington Rand) was connected directly to the UNIVAC.

Around 5,200 vacuum tubes (acting as logic-gates) were wired inside the UNIVAC system.

It also included large-capacity, magnetic-metallic tape drives used for long-term data storage inside a “UNITAPE” machine cabinet.

A “UNIPRINTER” machine for printing paper copy was also attached.

The UNIVAC used a high-speed “mercury-delay-line storage” memory which transmitted ultrasonic wave pulses through liquid mercury tubes; data was stored in binary-coded form.

The UNIVAC weighed 29,000 pounds, and could process about 1,905 operations per second using a 2.25 MHz clock. It consumed 125 kW of power.

I watched a video which showed, CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite seated at his anchor desk on the evening of Nov. 4, 1952. Nearby, a teletype machine was set up to send information back and forth from the UNIVAC. 

Cronkite introduced fellow CBS newscaster Charles Collingwood, who was seated near the UNIVAC computer operator’s console located in Philadelphia. 

Collingwood described the UNIVAC to the nation by saying; “This is the face of a UNIVAC. A UNIVAC is a fabulous electronic machine which we have borrowed to help us predict this election from the basis of the early returns as they come in.”

You can watch the video at:

A photo of how the UNIVAC looked in 1952 can be seen here:

Around 8:30 p.m. EST, the UNIVAC determined through its computing analysis programming, the winner of the 1952 presidential election would be Dwight Eisenhower – even though only a small number of the votes had been counted. 

The CBS network, which Cronkite was working for, was hesitant on sharing UNIVAC’s prediction with a national audience because public opinion showed Adlai Stevenson to be ahead. 

The UNIVAC had calculated 100-1 odds in favor of Eisenhower winning the election. 

Those odds didn’t sit well with the folks at CBS; some were speculating the “electronic-brained” UNIVAC was going to turn out to be a failure.

UNIVAC’s first set of electoral vote numbers predicted Eisenhower with 438, and Stevenson with 93. 

The actual electoral vote tally ended up with Eisenhower receiving 442, and Stevenson taking 89.

The UNIVAC had a less than 1 percent error – an amazing prediction result. 

On the popular vote totals, the UNIVAC projected 32,915,000 votes for Eisenhower; the official total was 33,936,252 which put the UNIVAC projection at around 3 percentage points in the accuracy rating category.

“We saw it as an added feature to our coverage that could be very interesting in the future, and there was a great deal of pride that we had this exclusively. But I don’t think that we felt the computer would become predominant in our coverage in any way,” Cronkite said about using the UNIVAC.

A photo of Walter Cronkite and J. Presper Eckert standing near the UNIVAC computer console can be seen at:

During the 1952 election night coverage, CBS competitor NBC was using a tabulating computing machine called the Monrobot, built by the Monroe Calculating Company. It was considerably smaller than the UNIVAC and less powerful, but it did tabulate votes in favor of Eisenhower. 

A picture of the Monrobot can be seen here:

During the 1956 presidential election, all three major television networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC, were reporting the presidential election results using computerized analysis.

The original UNIVAC can be seen in the Smithsonian Institution.

A personal note: As a youngster, and after seeing a Saturday morning cartoon showing Wile E. Coyote building a “do-it-yourself UNIVAC Electronic Brain,” I recall finding a cardboard box and cutting out a slotted opening on the front of it. I then colored several round “computing lights” on the box using red, green, yellow, and blue crayons.

I neatly placed sheets of paper and a sharpened pencil next to the box.

On a piece of paper, I wrote the following and taped it to the side of the box: “Write your question on paper, and insert in slot with a dime for the answer.” 

I printed along the top of the box in large letters, using a black crayon: “UNIVAC.” 

My family, especially my dad, got a kick out of it.