UNIVAC: A look back into the birth of the computer industry

UNIVAC: A look back into the birth of the computer industry

Summary: The Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC was the machine that started it all.

TOPICS: Outsourcing

One of my friends and colleagues, David Strom over at ReadWriteWeb has a great infographic about the UNIVAC I, the first commercially marketed programmable digital computer.

While the US Army's ENIAC preceded the UNIVAC I and there were other programmable or semi-programmable computers in service a decade before it (such as the IBM/Harvard Mark I and the top-secret fully-digital COLOSSUS used for German code-breaking at the UK's Bletchley Park facility) the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation's UNIVAC I was the computer that created an actual industry, in the sense that it was mass-produced and sold as a commercial product.

"Mass-Produced" may be something of a euphemism compared to today's standards -- only 46 of the UNIVAC I units were actually installed by Eckert-Mauchly and Remington Rand. But prior to the UNIVAC, computers were very much one-off affairs, with no set standards for electronic components, systems architecture, common programming languages, operating systems or anything of the sort we take for granted in computer systems today.

UNIVAC I has another important distinction in that it was the computer that correctly predicted the outcome of the 1952 presidential election between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

Other UNIVAC machines were later produced. There was also the UNIVAC II and the UNIVAC III.

In 1955 UNIVAC was purchased by Sperry as part of the Sperry Rand merger (just following Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation's 1950 purchase by Remington Rand) which later on merged with Burroughs and became UNISYS in 1986.

The UNIVAC console depicted above that I photographed back in May of 2006 in the lobby of the UNISYS Tredyffrin, Pennsylvania briefing center is actually a UNIVAC III, an improved version of the original utilizing transistorized components that was released in 1962.

Only 96 UNIVAC IIIs were produced in total.

Today, UNISYS is a systems integration firm that specializes in business transformation and strategic outsourcing to the Telecom, Transportation, Financial and Government industries.

For your nostalgic pleasure, I've assembled a photo gallery of various UNIVAC sales and marketing ephemera from the late 1940's and early-mid 1950's.

One could say that this early computer sales material and advertising copy was like a precursor to the Powerpoint. It's interesting to see that a lot of this vendor chest-thumping sorts of stuff and talking about business efficiency really hasn't really changed a whole lot in 60 years, despite tremendous technological advances.

Gallery: A Look Back at UNIVAC

Topic: Outsourcing


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • UNIVAC systems were not IBM!

    Back in the late '70s, I used Univac 1100 series computers while in college at Mankato State U.

    They had a 36-bit word and could have a 9-bit byte.

    Text was in either FIELDATA (6-bits) or ASCII (9-bits).

    Integers could be 6-bits up to 72-bits, in either ones-compliment or twos-compliment formats.

    Built-in floating point too.

    Most debugging was done with octal, not hexadecimal codes.

    And you had to have a "bible" of System Information and Codes in order to program anything.

    You really learned how these machines worked with Univac.
    • Dorado Clearpath

      The current iteration of those machines still use 36-bit words, 9-bit ASCII, and octal dumps. FIELDATA is still heavily used at a system level ... particularly within the MFD. John Walker has a nice little collection of Univac memories at http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/univac/ ... the ANIMAL Episode is an interesting read.
  • More links that Wikipedia..

    I wanted to read something, not feel like I'm not understanding almost every word in the article...
  • Univac memories

    I was a field engineer with Univac, and that was the best job I ever had. Good to see those pics of the old iron, and to reminisce about those good old days when you had to be an electronic tech. and a mechanic to keep those machines running. The pic with the FE using an o'scope brought back vivid memories. Thanks ZDNet for sharing this.
    • Early computers

      What most of todays' college graduates fail to realize is that these early beasts used [b]vacuum tubes[/b] as the active electronics. (yep, you Gen Xers, frail [b]vacuum tubes[/b] or for our friends on the far side of the 'pond' - [i]valves[/i]).

      I do not want to even think about the maintenance headache one would have trying to figure out [b]which tube[/b] was starting to fail, finding it, and getting that beast back up. In those days, you [b]really[/b] had to know them inside and out.

      Just for the sake of recognizing the advancements in the past 60+ years, try to imagine just how big a modern i7 desktop computer system would be if it were built with tubes! (and the amount of power it would suck from the grid).
      • I'm going to say

        ... an i7, on v.t.'s, would cover about the same ground space (for the "processor" alone) as Wrigley Field - give or take a half acre.

        Now ... as for the physical bus pathways and actual motherboard to accommodate a "processor" that big ... ???

  • ... And much is owed to Messrs Turing and Babbage

    Nuff said.
  • Anybody remembering the Elliot 803

    Used one in 1968-69, same type of console, if smaller, not bad at all in those days.