Univac the Paul Revere of the Computer Revolution by K. Ryan Weston

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The Paul Revere of the Computer Revolution


K. Ryan Weston

In the history of the twentieth century, no technological advancement has affected the society of America, and indeed the world, as profoundly as the computer. From Charles Babbage's manual calculating machine, to Bill Gates' rise through the ranks to sit at the throne of software and product development at Microsoft, the computer has ushered a new era into the lives of people everywhere. From business to recreation, from the youngest user to the oldest professional, the computer has helped the world see radical new possiblities and strive for a better tomorrow. This machine that has so radically changed the existence of mankind and created a market never forseen took the world by storm, yet came from such humble beginnings. Among those beginnings, produced by the likes of Alan Turing, Konrad Zuse, and Howard Aiken, were the colossal ENIAC, Mark I, and UNIVAC, among others. Out of these simple originators, the UNIVAC was the sign of things to come in the technological revolution.

The Universal Automatic Computer, or UNIVAC as it was known, was the brainchild of Dr. J. Presper Eckert and Dr. John W. Mauchly.

While attending the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Mauchly began to discuss the idea of an electronic digital computer with his fellow engineers at the school, among them J. Presper Eckert, then a graduate student at the school. In the year 1943, during the heart of World War II, the United States Army was desperately seeking human ballistics computers, in order to keep up with the rapid development of weapons for the war effort.

It was then that a government liason sent to the school to recruit students and graduates came across Mauchly's original memorandum about the project, and quickly realized the possibilities it held for effectively reducing the time and workload at the Army's Ballistics Research Laboratory. After further research and design, a contract was drawn up for the production of what was to become the UNIVAC's predecessor, ENIAC. Eckert and Mauchly joined forces to produce the electrical monstrosity of 18,000 vacuum tubes and rewirable control panels that was to be the Armys saving grace.

After the completion and relative success of ENIAC, Eckert and Mauchly decided to go into business for themselves. With Eckert's business background and Mauchly's innovative mindset, the two men thought the world was their oyster, and they were almost correct. Unfortunately, they underestimated both their resources, and their market. With the reputation of the ENIAC under their belt, they approached another government agency in order to secure another contract - this time the United States Census Bureau. In 1946, the Census Bureau was drowning in a veritable sea of paperwork. With the next census looming ahead of them, they needed a way to process all the data that ran concurrent with the booming population, and they needed it fast. That solution came in the form of Eckert and Mauchly's proposal to build a UNIVAC machine. In April 1946, $300,000 was transferred to the Census Bureau from the Army Ordanance Department to support the development of the UNIVAC computer. Here, like with the development of the ENIAC, a traditionally conservative government agency was willing to put forth the money necessary to support the young inventors and their endeavour, despite the warnings by the mathematician and scientific elite naysayers, who were adamant in voicing their pessimism in the practicality or efficiency of such a machine.

As the production of UNIVAC proceeded, it became apparent that the cynics might not have been too far off base with their predictions. The research phase of the project was optimistically proposed to take only six months, but it turned out that this schedule couldn't possibly be acheived with the lack of resources available to the two innovators. In reality, the research phase of the project took a year to complete, and it was not until 1948 that the actual design contract was undertaken at the fixed fee of $169,600. The original cost of the project was estimated by Eckert and Mauchly to be around $400,000, which was the Census Bureau's ceiling for the cost of the endeavor. Eckert and Mauchly were prepared to absorb the cost of anticipated losses in additional parts or research, depending upon the prospect of selling parts and service to the installations where their product would be implemented. However, they soon found that their generous estimates and preparations were overshadowed by the reality of the situation: they were understaffed, under budget, and in deep trouble.

The situation that Eckert and Mauchly found themselves in was looked upon by many with upturned noses, with "I told you so" being the general attitude of investors and scientists alike. Howard Aiken, creator of Mark I, was unsympathetic (in the least) to the predicament of the two young men. In a conversation with John Curtiss, of the National Research Council, Aiken is quoted as saying in regards to the situation:

we were . . . misleading not only the Government agencies which had made money available for the development of such equipment, but the general public in pursuing this course of trying to develop such equipment, giving the impression that this program could be justified . . . because there will never be enough problems, enough work for more than just one or two of these computers . . .

He then concluded that the National Research Council "ought to go back and . . . stop this foolishness with Eckert and Mauchly". Needless to say, Aiken was among the staunchest adversaries against the UNIVAC project, and as it turns out, one of the most wrong. Eckert and Mauchly were saved from imminent bankruptcy and failure in 1950 by none other than Remington Rand Inc., maker of the popular electric razors at the time.

With the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation under the wing of Remington Rand Inc., the UNIVAC project was quickly revitalized and began to take form into the original design proposed four years before. Remington Rand's lawyers attempted to renegotiate the government contract concerning UNIVAC, acknowledging the fact that ". . . the contract should have been on a cost plus fixed fee basis". They proposed that consideration be given to the possibility of adjusting the contract price to reimburse them "for the added cost suffered as a result of improvements made upon the original design". Unfortunately for Remington Rand, no legal loophole could be found to force the Census Bureau to renegotiate the contract, and after being threatened with legal action if the terms were not met, they had no choice to continue the development of UNIVAC for the government at the original price.

On March 31, 1951, the Census Bureau accepted the first UNIVAC, and in the course of the next eighteen months, two more UNIVACs from additional government contracts were delivered. In the end, the total count was forty- six UNIVAC I's built for the use of both government and business use. The offical estimate of the final cost of constructing the UNIVAC was difficult to ascertain, but was said to be in the neighborhood of $930,000. When taking into account what that amount of money was worth in 1951, to say that UNIVAC was over budget could politely said to be an understatement. Though Remington Rand took an economic beating for backing the two naive innovators, they secured for themselves a place in history as the producers of the first commercial computer system.

In many ways, the UNIVAC was quite a technological advancement from the design of the earlier ENIAC. Among the most notable of these improvements include the usage of Von Neuman's stored program concept (as opposed to the manual wire panels of ENIAC), the main memory size of 1,000 words, secondary memory upon magnetic tape (as opposed to ENIAC's function tables), and the improved input/output devices, including a typewriter, cards, and a printer. The performance was radically faster as well, with a clock rate of 2.25 MHz compared to ENIAC's snail's pace of 60-125 KHz, and the time required for a division operation six times faster (3.89 ms vs. 24.0 ms in ENIAC). While UNIVAC continued to use vacuum tubes, which were often prone to burn out in the middle of number crunching, the UNIVAC's tube count of 5,4000 was more than adequate as an improvement over ENIAC's 18,000 tubes. The floor space that UNIVAC occupied was also more modest at only 352 square feet, opposed to ENIAC's massive bulk of 1,8000 square feet. While UNIVAC was still a dinosuar compared to today's pentiums and workstations, it was the next best thing since sliced bread in 1951, when it was used to tally part of the 1950 U.S. population census, drastically reducing the workload of the human tabulators usually required to work excrutiatingly long hours on the job.

Eckert and Mauchly had entered the business world with UNIVAC as the opportunity to snatch away the customers who were currently wrapped up in IBM's computing equipment and punch-card media for their business needs. The increased speed with which UNIVAC's magnetic tape could input data and hence compute results was indeed a dream come true for some businesses, but the task of convincing those businesses to let go of the punch-card technology they had spent years utilizing proved to be easier said than done. While the contracts were slowly processed, the original UNIVAC I delivered to the Census Bureau was busy number-crunching the data of bureau surveys, including economic surveys. For the bulky economic censuses, the Census Bureau purchased another UNIVAC I and added a printer and a device to convert the punched card data to data stored on magnetic tape. While all this tabulating and data processing was seen as a Godsend in government circles, the real reputation of UNIVAC wasn't earned until the presidential election of 1952.

As results of the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential election were being processed at election headquarters, the news media conducted a mock inquiry to UNIVAC concerning its prediction of the election outcome. On the news broadcast, the mammoth computer remained silent, and the newscaster relayed sentiments to the effect that even the computer couldn't decide the outcome of the presidential race. Americans watching the broadcast would later find out that this was not the case at all. Before the media had set up the mock inquiry, they had submitted the data to UNIVAC and had gotten a result. The printout informed them that Eisenhower would win the presidential election, but the newscasters, unwilling to present the results they found as simply unbelievable, merely set the output aside and proceeded to broadcast the machine as being "stumped". Needless to say, it was sheepish newscaster that later appeared on the television to inform the home audience that UNIVAC had indeed predicted the election correctly, but the news media had not been willing to stake their reputation on the machine's calculations. The news about UNIVAC outthinking the political forecasters and news media spread like wildfire through the world, who found it both amazing and amusing that a machine such as UNIVAC could be so accurate in such a situation, when humans could not do the same.

Hence, UNIVAC soon became a hot topic, from fueling the paranoia of "automation" (replacing humans with computers for clerical and data processing tasks), to a sudden surge of interest in the scientific community. Although it wasn't until three years later, when General Electric Co.'s Appliance Park facility in Louisville, Kentucky for a payroll application that the UNIVAC was actually used for crunching numbers in a commercial context, UNIVAC essentially lived up to Eckert and Mauchly's vision of making the job of processing data in government or business an easier and more efficient task. By that point in time, the Census Bureau had moved its original UNIVAC off the front lines to its headquarters in Suitland, Maryland. By 1957, the UNIVAC Is had lived up to their initial expecations, and were honorably retired from service. The notoriously famous original UNIVAC I of the Census Bureau was moved to the Smithsonian Institute to preserve as a forefather of the computer revolution.

In the end, Eckert and Mauchly had "fought the good fight" in their naive determination and pursuit of developing UNIVAC. They were lucky to have been rescued at key points in their endeavour by financial backing or brilliant new innovations to keep their project afloat. If they had not succeeded, we would at the least not have made the radical progress in technology we have in the past fifty years. While the names may not be familiar to John Q. Public, Eckert, Mauchly, and UNIVAC will forever stand as a milestone in the history of computing, and as being responsible for allowing our society, and indeed the world, to make the twentieth century a time of innovation and creation the likes of which will never be seen again. UNIVAC was to the technological advancement of our society what ships were to the seafarers of the fifteenth century, and much like them, we press forever onward, taking what those before us have learned and striving to go further and farther than our predecessors. UNIVAC created a foundation upon which the computer industry could be firmly built, and the name should forever be held in reverence.


  • N. Stern, "From ENIAC to UNIVAC: An Appraisal of the Eckert-Mauchly Computers," Digital Press, 1981.

  • C.J. Huston, "Unisys History Newsletter," George Gray, 1992.

  • 40 Years of Computing,"Datamation", v37 n6, March 15,1991.

Approximate word count: 2,236 words

Last updated 17 February 1997

© K. Ryan Weston
Virginia Tech
CS 3604

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