First commercial computer turns 50

The UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer) Thursday celebrated its 50th birthday. On June 14, 1951, UNIVAC I made its debut at the US Census Bureau, the first enterprise customer in an industry that has grown to become a multibillion dollar market. It was shown off back then during a commemoration ceremony to celebrate "the fact that it was installed and ready to go," said Steve Holzman, a Unisys spokesperson.

For a hefty price tag of $US1.6 million, the Census Bureau invested in the computer, which could hold a maximum 12MB of data, had a processing speed of 0.008 MHz and required 952-cubic feet of space to house, about the size of a sport utility vehicle. In comparison, Unisys' latest enterprise computer, the ES 7000, holds thousands of gigabytes of data, has 32 processors running at 900MHz and is no bigger than an average-sized refrigerator.

The original machine was so big, in fact, a door opened up to its core where engineers would often install a desk and chair inside to enjoy the computer's air-conditioned centre, Unisys said.

Despite its size, the machine soon became a sought-after device for computing thousands of equations per second. One of its earliest customers, General Electric used the UNIVAC I to do its payroll. In its first few years in production, 46 customers from the US Army to DuPont employed the lumbering giant to run their own systems.

UNIVAC's creators also built the ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator) in the late 1940s as the predecessor to the UNIVAC I. The ENIAC was developed by John Mauchly and John Presper Eckert for a US military project known as Project PX to calculate the trajectory of artillery shells during the second World War. The machine they built was twice as large and possessed half the calculating speed of the UNIVAC, Unisys said.

"There were a lot of electromechanical technologies that did faster computations than you could do with a piece of paper," Holzman said of the time. "The ENIAC was the first fully electronic machine."

But ENIAC's creators quickly improved the performance of their first machine and by 1951 created a computer that would be sold to corporate customers besides the US government. Over the years, through a series of corporate buyouts and acquisitions, the UNIVAC found its home with Unisys in 1986.

The company now has a lot to reminisce about. Unisys Thursday issued an "apology" for introducing the UNIVAC to the enterprise market. The company said it was sorry for "giving SPAM a bad name," jokingly referring to the meat product whose name came to also mean unsolicited commercial e-mail. Unisys further offered a tongue-in-cheek apology for paving the way for the dot-com bubble and its subsequent burst and eliminating the concept of regular working hours.

But what the machine might be best remembered for, the company said, is the first computation that gave it widespread public attention. In 1952 the UNIVAC correctly predicted that Dwight D. Eisenhower would be victorious in the US presidential election. Guardedly, CBS' evening news show chose not to air the UNIVAC prediction, instead waiting for an official count. Soon after the polls closed, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite acknowledged its accuracy.

If only reporters had shared a similar scepticism for early predictions in the last US presidential election, George W. Bush ... no, Al Gore ... no, George W. Bush could have been more comfortable celebrating an early victory.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Matt Berger

PC World
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Matthew Stivala

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

The HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer is a great device that fits perfectly into my fast paced and mobile lifestyle. My first impression of the printer itself was how incredibly compact and sleek the device was.

Armand Abogado

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

Wireless printing from my iPhone was also a handy feature, the whole experience was quick and seamless with no setup requirements - accessed through the default iOS printing menu options.

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?