In '52, Huge Computer Called Univac Changed Election Night

There was another election season, back in 1952, when a presidential contest seemed too close to call, America worried it was vulnerable to attack, and a single company dominated computing.

Those circumstances set the stage for the election night dramatics of the Univac - perhaps the most significant live TV performance ever by a computer. It might just be technology's equivalent of the first Elvis appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Except parents didn't worry that computers were going to destroy the moral fiber of the nation's youth, which shows you how much parents know.

In a few hours on Nov. 4, 1952, Univac altered politics, changed the world's perception of computers and upended the tech industry's status quo. Along the way, it embarrassed CBS long before Dan Rather could do that all by himself.

As polls began to close, clerks typed the data into the Univac using three Unityper machines, which punched holes in a paper tape that would be fed into the computer.

By 8:30 p.m. ET - long before news organizations of the era knew national election outcomes - Univac spit out a startling prediction. It said Eisenhower would get 438 electoral votes to Stevenson's 93 - a landslide victory. Because every poll had said the race would be tight, CBS didn't believe the computer and refused to air the prediction.

Late that night, as actual results came in, CBS realized Univac had been right. Embarrassed, Collingwood came back on the air and confessed to millions of viewers that Univac had predicted the results hours earlier.

In fact, the official count ended up being 442 electoral votes for Eisenhower and 89 for Stevenson. Univac had been off by less than 1%. It had missed the popular vote results by only 3%. Considering that the Univac had 5,000 vacuum tubes that did 1,000 calculations per second, that's pretty impressive. A musical Hallmark card has more computing power.

In the public's mind, the Univac was the new leader in computing. And by 1956, the TV networks all used computers and predicted results early, changing the dynamics of Election Day.

And where has that gotten us? Back to a presidential contest too close to call, a nation worried it is vulnerable to attack, and a single company dominating computing.

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News source: USA Today

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