Univac predicts winner of 1952 election
First for television and information technology
April 30, 1999
by Leslie Goff
History was made on election night, 1952: in politics, journalism and business computing. The CBS newsroom was abuzz with reporting the election returns. Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was the front-runner
in all the advance opinion polls, but by 8:30 p.m. on the East Coast -- well before polls were to close in the Western states -- one pundit was now projecting 100-1 odds that Dwight D. Eisenhower would win by a landslide.
That pundit wasn't a human being, however. It was the Univac I, the only general-purpose computer of its day. And its use that night, Nov. 4, 1952, marked one of the first times a company used a computer to gain competitive advantage.
But CBS news reporters were too busy scrambling to report results to think too much about the Univac. "I don't think any of us saw the long shadow in the newsroom at all," recalls Walter Cronkite, who anchored the news desk that night.
"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."
The CBS news team, led by Sig Mickelson, then director of news and public affairs, got acquainted with the Univac in August. A public relations representative at Remington Rand's Eckert-Mauchly division said he "could give us a machine that would predict the election returns," Mickelson says. "I knew enough to know that wasn't true, but I knew it would be possible to speed up the analysis of the returns."
CBS staff members, including Mickelson, Cronkite and reporter Charles Collingwood, who would deliver the on-air reports about the Univac's output, traveled to Philadelphia to see the grand machine for themselves. "The earliest admonition we had about the computer was to quit using the phrase electric brain. The folks in Philadelphia tried to convince us that the Univac didn't have a brain, and that whatever we fed into it would determine what we got out of it," Cronkite recalls.
Collingwood was late to the meeting, and when he arrived, the Univac greeted him, via a teletype machine, with a message: "Collingwood, you're late. Where have you been?" Collingwood was instantly won over, and the tone for his reporting was set.
With only three months to go to the election, the news team began working with Max Woodbury, a mathematician from the University of Pennsylvania, to gather the data and write a program that would make the Univac tick. Woodbury devised an "if X, then Y" program.
On the evening of Nov. 4, Woodbury and Mauchly were stationed at the Univac, Collingwood was ensconced in the CBS studio, Cronkite was on the anchor desk, and a teletype machine was set up to relay the information back and forth. By 8:30 p.m., the Univac was calculating 100-1 odds in favor of Eisenhower. Those odds didn't sit well with anyone; it looked like the project might be a failure.
"We had been convinced that the Univac would have the right answer," Mickelson says.
Mickelson made the call not to use the odds, and Woodbury crunched a second set of numbers. About 9 p.m., Collingwood reported to CBS viewers that the Univac was putting 8-7 odds on an Eisenhower victory. But Woodbury detected a mistake in the data he fed the Univac on the second round: He had inadvertently added a zero to Stevenson's total votes in New York State. He ran a new set of numbers, and Eisenhower's odds jumped back up to 100-1, and stayed there.
As it turned out, the Univac -- and Woodbury's program -- were accurate nearly to a fault. The first run of the numbers had predicted an electoral vote of 438 for Eisenhower and 93 for Stevenson. The official count was 442 for Eisenhower and 89 for Stevenson -- an error of less than 1%. On the popular vote, the Univac projected a total of 32,915,000 nods for Eisenhower, which was only about 3% off the official total of 33,936,252.
And the Univac did in fact put CBS ahead of its competition, at least technologically. The network was the first to call the race. By the 1956 elections, all three networks were in the computer game.
Goff is a frequent contributor to Computerworld. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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