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'Fabulous electronic machine' surprisingly picks presidential winner
Nov. 7, 2016
by Mark Ollig

The evening of Nov. 4, 1952, people all across the country closely watched their televisions.

CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite was reporting on the voter returns from the 1952 US presidential election.

On that evening, CBS showcased a pioneering computer called UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer).

Univac, an electronic digital computer, was manufactured by the Remington Rand company and was used by the US Census Bureau in 1950.

Univac’s large equipment cabinets required the room equal to a spacious two-car garage.

As Walter Cronkite reported from his anchor desk in the CBS New York City studio, a nearby teletype machine directly connected to the Univac computer, located 100 miles away in Philadelphia, sent and received information.

Across this studio, CBS newscaster Charles Collingwood was seated near a Univac operator’s console the size of a large desk.

The console was not directly connected to the Univac; it was an exact replica, with working lights blinking on and off.

“This is the face of a Univac. A Univac is a fabulous electronic machine which we have borrowed to help us predict this election from the basis of the early returns as they come in,” described Collingwood.

“This is not a joke or a trick. It’s an experiment. We think it’s going to work, we don’t know . . . we hope it’ll work,” he optimistically added.

Around 7:30 p.m. CST, Univac concluded the winner of the 1952 US presidential election would be Dwight Eisenhower – even though only a small number of the votes had been counted.

Upon learning this, the CBS folks did not immediately share Univac’s prediction with its national audience. Public opinion polls showed Adlai Stevenson to be leading Eisenhower.

Some people with CBS thought the Univac television experiment was going to turn out to be a colossal failure.

Univac’s final national electoral vote numbers predicted Eisenhower getting 438, and Stevenson having 93.

The actual electoral tally ended up with Eisenhower receiving 442, and Stevenson taking 89.

On the popular vote totals, Univac projected 32,915,000 votes for Eisenhower; the official total was 34,075,529.

As the late voter election return totals came in, Cronkite quoted former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen (who was in the CBS studio) saying; “It looks as if General Eisenhower will be elected with the greatest popular vote in history.”

In the end, the Univac passed the television experiment and was a remarkable success.

The future of televised computer election predictions was born.

“We saw it as an added feature to our coverage that could be very interesting in the future, and there was a great deal of pride that we had this exclusively. But I don’t think that we felt the computer would become predominant in our coverage in any way,” Cronkite later said.

In a somewhat related story; as a youngster growing up during the 1960s, I regularly watched Saturday morning cartoons (usually with a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal).

One cartoon featured Wile E. Coyote building a “do-it-yourself UNIVAC Electronic Brain” with the hope it would be able to think of a way to capture the always-elusive Road Runner.

I decided to build my own Univac computer which would answer questions (for a modest fee, of course).

Using a small cardboard box, I cut out a rectangular opening on the front large enough to insert a sheet of paper, and a smaller opening for depositing a dime.

Several colorful “thinking computing lights” were drawn around the box using crayons from my Crayola box with the handy built-in sharpener.

A small stack of neatly placed sheets of paper, and a few sharpened pencils were put next to the box – I mean computer.

Along the top of the box, with a black crayon I printed in large letters: “UNIVAC COMPUTER.”

I wrote the following on a piece of paper and taped it to the side of the box: “Write your question on a piece of paper. Insert paper in opening along with a dime for your answer. Thank you, UNIVAC COMPUTER.”

I placed my cardboard Univac computer on the kitchen counter next to the radio, and waited for someone’s question.

The cardboard computer’s processing power was the brain of an 8-year-old boy; yours truly, who would collect the questions (and dimes) and then go to the family den, where the World Book Encyclopedias were located.

I researched the questions, and wrote the answers on paper.

The answered questions were placed next to the cardboard Univac, where they would be retrieved by the questioners.

My family, especially my dad, got a kick out of this enterprising operation.

I recall dad wrote the following question and placed it, along with a dime, into my UNIVAC computer: “How do I get my 8-year-old son to take out the kitchen wastebasket?”

Moments later, the kitchen wastebasket was being taken out by his 8-year-old son.

So, who is going to win this year’s presidential election?

I’d like to think the original Univac (now in the Smithsonian Institution) would accurately predict the outcome.

You can watch the Nov. 4, 1952 CBS video at: http://tinyurl.com/CBS1952.

Follow me on Twitter via the @bitsandbytes username.

Parts of this column originally published Nov. 4, 2013 were modified by the writer.


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