05/12/2021

016 – Universal automatic computing – 1946

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Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

The University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering was charged with producing a differential analyser to create artillery firing tables for the Ballistics Research Laboratory; for this purpose it hired John Mauchly among others.

Mauchly had previously met Atanasoff at Iowa and reviewed the ABC computer in 1940/1.  In 1942 he issued a memo proposing the construction of the first large-scale general-purpose digital electronic computer.

1943 Mauchly and J Presper Eckert became consultants to Project PX.  This project would develop the ENIAC, electronic numerical integrator and computer.

ENIAC took up 700sq ft (65sq m) of floor-space and weighed 27 tons (tonnes).  It proved reliable and fast, performing 5,000 additions or 300 multiplications per second which was much faster than prior mechanical computers and  calculators.

The need for a stored program was soon identified and the EDVAC, electronic discrete variable automatic computer, became operational in 1951.

The Eckert and Mauchly patent application for the EDVAC was frustrated by John von Neumann’s ‘First Draft’ document that effectively put their design into the public domain.  They became disenchanted and left the project to found the Electronic Control Company in 1946, later renamed Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.

EMCC set about designing the first computer aimed directly at business and commerce – the EDVAC II.  Cash flow delayed its progress so to gain revenue they signed a deal with Northrop Aircraft Company to supply the Binary Automatic Computer, the first stored-program computer to be installed in the USA and the first digital computer in the world to be sold.

Yet the BINAC never worked properly at Northrop.  The aerospace group argued it had been packed inadequately; EMCC suggested the assembly team had failed to build it properly; it had not been allowed into the secure plant to do it.

EMCC became embroiled in the McCarthy witch-hunt, resulting in Mauchly being banned from company property; it was two years before he was cleared.  Remington Rand acquired EMCC, which would be renamed the Univac division of Remington Rand in 1950.

EMCC’s orders were from government institutions including the US Census Bureau (see also PC Moment 007) and US Air Force.  Renamed UNIVAC 1, universal automatic computer, its first installation was in 1951.  UNIVAC 1 sold originally for c$150,000 but the price soon rose to c$1.5m; forty-six UNIVAC systems were sold.

An early UNIVAC was used by the A C Nielsen research organization to correctly forecast the 1952 presidential election for CBS TV.  Polls had predicted a close-run contest but by 8.30pm the UNIVAC was forecasting a landslide victory.

Fearful of error, the software was run a second time. 

At 9.15pm it still showed a strong lead and forecast that Dwight D Eisenhower would become the 34th president of the USA.

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