With the next census just two years away—it takes place April 1, 2020—it’s worth remembering the machine that computerized the U.S. Census Bureau’s operations. The bureau signed a contract on March 31, 1951, to use the UNIVAC, or the UNIVersal Automatic Computer. The machine replaced the Hollerith Tabulator, a punch card machine that had been in use since 1890. UNIVAC had the capability to convert information from punch card to magnetic tape and could quickly reproduce large quantities of data without error.
Developed by ENIAC creators John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, the UNIVAC was only in use at the Census Bureau for 12 years. Then, it was replaced by newer machines and went into retirement at the Smithsonian.
UNIVAC’s shocking election prediction
The UNIVAC’s chapter in technology history isn’t limited to the census, though. Long before Nate Silver, the computer was accurately predicting election results. The night of the 1952 presidential election, CBS News—during the first evening-long television broadcast of presidential election results—decided to spice up its programming by using the UNIVAC to predict the outcome of the race between Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. A UNIVAC prototype was set up next to Walter Cronkite, with the real UNIVAC (programmed by none other than Grace Murray Hopper) set up some 100 miles away.
#DidYouKnow: In 1952 UNIVAC correctly predicted Eisenhower would easily defeat Stevenson – with only 5% of the vote in @smartermsp
With only 5 percent of the vote in, the UNIVAC predicted Eisenhower would easily win. But, this contradicted the work of pollsters, who had predicted a tight race. Fearing embarrassment, CBS held the UNIVAC’s predictions until later in the evening, when the UNIVAC’s work was backed up by actual results. “As more votes came in, the odds came back, and it was obviously evident that we should have had the nerve enough to believe the machine in the first place,” said Art Draper, a representative for UNIVAC manufacturer Remington Rand, on air. “It was right. We were wrong. Next year we’ll believe it.”
The American people were awestruck by the UNIVAC—so much so that for the next several years, “UNIVAC” was synonymous with computer, much like “Kleenex” is with tissue.