Blogs > Cliopatria > When Were Computers First Used to Predict a Presidential Election?

Oct 29, 2004 6:39 pm

When Were Computers First Used to Predict a Presidential Election?

Kevin Maney, in USA Toay (Oct. 27, 2004):

There was another election season, back in 1952, when a presidential contest seemed too close to call, America worried it was vulnerable to attack, and a single company dominated computing.

Those circumstances set the stage for the election night dramatics of the Univac -- perhaps the most significant live TV performance ever by a computer. It might just be technology's equivalent of the first Elvis appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Except parents didn't worry that computers were going to destroy the moral fiber of the nation's youth, which shows you how much parents know.

In a few hours on Nov. 4, 1952, Univac altered politics, changed the world's perception of computers and upended the tech industry's status quo. Along the way, it embarrassed CBS long before Dan Rather could do that all by himself.

The Republican candidate was Dwight Eisenhower. The Democrat, Adlai Stevenson. Polls showed them in a dead heat....

Computers were the stuff of science fiction and wide-eyed articles about "electric brains." Few people had actually seen one. Only a handful had been built, among them the first computer, Eniac, created by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s.

By 1952, Eckert and Mauchly had joined Remington Rand and finished another computer, which they called Univac. They had only that one.

IBM was racing to build its Univac-beater, dubbed the 701. For 30 years, going back to mechanical punch-card machines, IBM had lorded over computing to a degree Microsoft can only dream about. The 701 was due to be unveiled in January 1953. IBM CEO Thomas Watson planned a public relations bacchanal.

In summer 1952, a Remington Rand executive approached CBS News chief Sig Mickelson and said the Univac might be able to plot early election-night returns against past voting patterns and spit out a predicted winner. Mickelson and anchor Walter Cronkite thought the claim was a load of baloney but figured it would at least be entertaining to try it on the air.

Eckert and Mauchly sought help from a University of Pennsylvania statistician, Max Woodbury. He and Mauchly wrote one of the first algorithms for computing, working at Mauchly's house because Mauchly had been blacklisted as pro-communist. "John wasn't allowed into the company anymore," says Mauchly's widow, Kay Mauchly Antonelli.

On election night, the 16,000-pound Univac remained at its home in Philadelphia. In the TV studio, CBS set up a fake computer -- a panel embedded with blinking Christmas lights and a teletype machine. Cronkite sat next to it. Correspondent Charles Collingwood and a camera crew set up in front of the real Univac.

As polls began to close, clerks typed the data into the Univac using three Unityper machines, which punched holes in a paper tape that would be fed into the computer.

By 8:30 p.m. ET -- long before news organizations of the era knew national election outcomes -- Univac spit out a startling prediction. It said Eisenhower would get 438 electoral votes to Stevenson's 93 -- a landslide victory. Because every poll had said the race would be tight, CBS didn't believe the computer and refused to air the prediction.

"Mauchly was at home getting telephone calls all the time about what was happening," Antonelli says. "All he could say was, 'Sit tight, we've done the best we could.' We sat there all night in front of the TV set with bated breath."

"It was essentially a live demo, on national TV," says Jim Senior, historian at Unisys, the computer giant that traces its roots to Remington Rand and Univac. "That took a lot of daring."

Under pressure, Woodbury rejiggered the algorithms. Univac then gave Eisenhower 8-to-7 odds over Stevenson. At 9:15 p.m., Cronkite reported that on the air. But Woodbury kept working and found he'd made a mistake. He ran the numbers again and got the original results -- an Eisenhower landslide.

Late that night, as actual results came in, CBS realized Univac had been right. Embarrassed, Collingwood came back on the air and confessed to millions of viewers that Univac had predicted the results hours earlier.

In fact, the official count ended up being 442 electoral votes for Eisenhower and 89 for Stevenson. Univac had been off by less than 1%. It had missed the popular vote results by only 3%. Considering that the Univac had 5,000 vacuum tubes that did 1,000 calculations per second, that's pretty impressive. A musical Hallmark card has more computing power.

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