08 July 2015

UNIVAC Computer



The invention: 

The first commercially successful computer system.

The people behind the invention:

John Presper Eckert (1919-1995), an American electrical engineer
John W. Mauchly (1907-1980), an American physicist
John von Neumann (1903-1957), a Hungarian American
mathematician
Howard Aiken (1900-1973), an American physicist
George Stibitz (1904-1995), a scientist at Bell Labs




The Origins of Computing

On March 31, 1951, the U.S. Census Bureau accepted delivery of
the first Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC). This powerful
electronic computer, far surpassing anything then available in technological
features and capability, ushered in the first computer generation
and pioneered the commercialization of what had previously
been the domain of academia and the interest of the military. The fanfare
that surrounded this historic occasion, however, masked the turbulence
of the previous five years for the young upstart Eckert-
Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC), which by this time was a
wholly owned subsidiary of Remington Rand Corporation.
John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly met in the summer of
1941 at the University of Pennsylvania. A short time later, Mauchly,
then a physics professor at Ursinus College, joined the Moore School
of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and embarked on a
crusade to convince others of the feasibility of creating electronic digital
computers. Up to this time, the only computers available were
called “differential analyzers,” which were used to solve complex
mathematical equations known as “differential equations.” These
slow machines were good only for solving a relatively narrow range
of mathematical problems.
Eckert and Mauchly landed a contract that eventually resulted in
the development and construction of the world’s first operational
general-purpose electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator
and Calculator (ENIAC). This computer, used eventually
by the Army for the calculation of ballistics tables, was deficient in
many obvious areas, but this was caused by economic rather than
engineering constraints. One major deficiency was the lack of automatic
program control; the ENIAC did not have stored program
memory. This was addressed in the development of the Electronic
Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC), the successor to
the ENIAC.



Fighting the Establishment

A symbiotic relationship had developed between Eckert and
Mauchly that worked to their advantage on technical matters.
They worked well with each other, and this contributed to their
success in spite of external obstacles. They both were interested in
the commercial applications of computers and envisioned uses for
these machines far beyond the narrow applications required by
the military.
This interest brought them into conflict with the administration
at the Moore School of Engineering as well as with the noted mathematician
John von Neumann, who “joined” the ENIAC/EDVAC
development team in 1945. Von Neumann made significant contributions
and added credibility to the Moore School group, which often
had to fight against the conservative scientific establishment
characterized by Howard Aiken at Harvard University and George
Stibitz at Bell Labs. Philosophical differences between von Neumann
and Eckert and Mauchly, as well as patent issue disputes with
the Moore School administration, eventually caused the resignation
of Eckert and Mauchly on March 31, 1946.
Eckert and Mauchly, along with some of their engineering colleagues
at the University of Pennsylvania, formed the Electronic
Control Company and proceeded to interest potential customers
(including the Census Bureau) in an “EDVAC-type” machine. On
May 24, 1947, the EDVAC-type machine became the UNIVAC. This
new computer would overcome the shortcomings of the ENIAC
and the EDVAC (which was eventually completed by the Moore
School in 1951). It would be a stored-program computer and would
allow input to and output from the computer via magnetic tape. The
prior method of input/output used punched paper cards that were
extremely slow compared to the speed at which data in the computer
could be processed.
A series of poor business decisions and other unfortunate circumstances
forced the newly renamed Eckert-Mauchly Computer
Corporation to look for a buyer. They found one in Remington Rand
in 1950. Remington Rand built tabulating equipment and was a
competitor of International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).
IBM was approached about buying EMCC, but the negotiations fell
apart. EMCC became a division of Remington Rand and had access
to the resources necessary to finish the UNIVAC.


Consequences

Eckert and Mauchly made a significant contribution to the advent
of the computer age with the introduction of the UNIVAC I.
The words “computer” and “UNIVAC” entered the popular vocabulary
as synonyms. The efforts of these two visionaries were rewarded
quickly as contracts started to pour in, taking IBM by surprise
and propelling the inventors into the national spotlight.
This spotlight shone brightest, perhaps, on the eve of the national
presidential election of 1952, which pitted war hero General Dwight
D. Eisenhower against statesman Adlai Stevenson. At the suggestion
of Remington Rand, CBS was invited to use UNIVAC to predict
the outcome of the election. Millions of television viewers watched
as CBS anchormanWalter Cronkite “asked” UNIVAC for its predictions.
A program had been written to analyze the results of thousands
of voting districts in the elections of 1944 and 1948. Based on
only 7 percent of the votes coming in, UNIVAC had Eisenhower
winning by a landslide, in contrast with all the prior human forecasts
of a close election. Surprised by this answer and not willing to
suffer the embarrassment of being wrong, the programmers quickly
directed the program to provide an answer that was closer to the
perceived situation. The outcome of the election, however, matched
UNIVAC’s original answer. This prompted CBS commentator Edward
R. Murrow’s famous quote, “The trouble with machines is
people.”
The development of the UNIVAC I produced many technical innovations.
Primary among these is the use of magnetic tape for input
and output. All machines that preceded the UNIVAC (with one
exception) used either paper tape or cards for input and cards for
output. These methods were very slow and created a bottleneck of
information. The great advantage of magnetic tape was the ability
to store the equivalent of thousands of cards of data on one 30-centimeter
reel of tape. Another advantage was its speed.

See also: Apple II computer; BINAC computer; Colossus computer;
ENIAC computer; IBM Model 1401 computer; Personal computer;
Supercomputer.

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