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

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

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