Remington Rand "Univac" (UNIVersal
Automatic Computer) computer was delivered on March 31, 1951. Its
main memory consisted of liquid mercury delay lines arranged in 1000 words of 12
alphanumeric characters each. A Univac famously calculated the first presidential
race forecast - Eisenhower vs. Stevenson - and was correct! This 1957 report in
Radio & Television News magazine mentions how "giant electronic computers
no longer rank as laboratory curiosities or frightening science-fiction robots."
The Unisys company is today's
descendant of Remington Rand.
By Frank Leary
An Electronic Brain for Industry
Business and industry, hard-pressed for information to aid management, turn to
computers for help - and find it!
The giant electronic computers no longer rank as laboratory curiosities or frightening
science-fiction robots. Imaginative businessmen, hard-pressed by a shortage of clerical
help, have put them quietly to work in the accounting office, the stockroom, and
wherever else work can be routinized.
First of the giant brains to be built specifically for business, the Remington
Rand "Univac" has been familiar to most Americans through the role it has played
in predicting the outcome of the last three national elections. On last November's
election evening, with less than 1/2 percent of the votes (300,000) counted, the
"Univac" predicted at 7:15 p.m., EST, that the odds were 100 to 1 in favor of an
Eisenhower landslide and that only 87 electoral votes were likely to wind up in
the column of candidate Stevenson. By midnight, "Univac" had virtually pinpointed
the final results with a forecast that President Eisenhower's plurality would be
9,269,524, totaling 58 percent of the popular vote to Stevenson's 42 percent. (The
actual plurality, as of the time of this writing, is very close to 9,312,700).
The first political forecast of "Univac" was made back in 1952. Then, with 3,380,000
votes reported. "Univac" also quoted odds of 100 to 1, predicting 438 electoral
votes for Eisenhower and 93 for Stevenson (final returns: 442 to 89). At that time,
only six "Univac" systems had been sold; these six were all the general-purpose
business data-processing systems that had ever been built. Now about a dozen large
office-equipment and electronics manufacturers are engaged in the building of big
computers; half a hundred more companies are building major systems components.
What was a minor novelty in 1951 has become a several-hundred-million-dollar industry
in the remarkably brief ensuing period of a little over five years' time.
The "Univac" system shown on the cover of this month's issue is one of the two
such systems installed by the Consolidated Edison Company of New York to process
its customers' accounts. Over a hundred large-scale computing systems of this type
are already working for American business and industry across the land, in various
government agencies, and in a great many military establishments and equipment,
as are described in the article "Behind the Giant Brains," in this issue.
The distinguishing feature of the "Univac," when it was introduced in 1951, was
not its computing speed; its own predecessor, the "Binac," could compute almost
two times as fast, and many other machines released before or since were faster
than the Remington Rand development. "Univac's" forte was in flexibility; it was
one of the first big computers to be able to handle numbers and alphabetic characters
with equal ease; it was the very first computing system to use high-speed magnetic
tape recording to get information into the computer and get results out. High-speed
tape input and output, of course, permits the rapid handling and processing of information
in volume. Since most problems of business and industry are characterized by masses
of alphabetic or numerical information on which a relatively small amount of computing
or processing is done, input-output facilities make the difference between a scientific
computer and a data processor which is truly applicable to large-scale business
"Univac" is also unusual in being a self-checking computer. Over a third of the
circuitry in the large central computer cabinet is devoted to checking arid verifying
operations. Every arithmetical process, all transfers of information, and even the
instruction set-ups, control functions, and so forth, are checked. Inconsistencies,
discrepancies, etc., cause the computer to stop and alert the operator to their
presence and location. Since the machine cannot introduce an undetected error, processed
results are thoroughly reliable.
It is difficult to estimate the savings which have accrued to dozens of computer
users, because these savings are both direct and indirect. Not only do companies
relieve pressure on their overburdened clerical staffs, and eliminate the many machines
which formerly did the work now done by computers; but they also do work which they
had never planned, hoped, or intended to do before; work which only a high-speed
electronic computer can make possible. And in this realm, of course, there is no
basis for comparison. But in every case, companies which have leased or purchased
such computers made their decisions to do so after their own staffs had made exhaustive
surveys which pointed conclusively to substantial and measurable savings over other
systems. In this field, as in almost any other, the searching criterion of economy
has brought us into the electronic age.
Posted August 12, 2021
(updated from original post on 7/17/2013)