UNIVAC predicts election results, November 4, 1952

-November 04, 2016

In 1952, a UNIVAC (universal automatic computer) I mainframe computer was used to predict the result of the US presidential election.

After inventing the ENIAC and BINAC, J Presper Eckert and John Mauchly developed UNIVAC for the Bureau of the Census. It was the first American computer designed for business and administrative use. When their company was sold, Remington Rand manufactured the machine.

The fifth of its kind was built for the US Atomic Energy Commission, but it was first used in a promotional event by CBS to predict election results.

Navy mathematician Grace Murray Hopper worked for Remington Rand with a team of programmers who input voting statistics from earlier elections and wrote code to allow the calculator to predict the result based on previous races. Technicians would use Unityper machines to encode the data onto paper tape to feed into UNIVAC.

The UNIVAC was in Philadelphia where statistician Max Woodbury worked on algorithms and entered the data, and CBS' Charles Collingwood was reporting. It was connected to a teletype machine at the CBS studios in New York City, where Eckert was on hand to explain how it worked and Walter Cronkite was on the air.

UNIVAC 1953 election Cronkite
Remington Rand's Harold E Sweeney and J Presper Eckert demonstrate UNIVAC for
CBS' Walter Cronkite (L-R).

The election pitted General Dwight D Eisenhower against Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, and opinion polls were favoring Stevenson.

The computer's early prediction, made before polls were even closed on the West Coast, was that Eisenhower would collect 438 electoral votes to Stevenson's 93, and had 100-1 odds of winning.

Convinced it was wrong, CBS suggested the computer wasn't working and had Woodbury rework his algorithm. The computer then produced 8-7 odds in favor of Eisenhower, which CBS was comfortable reporting.

Woodbury soon realized he missed a 0 when re-entering the data, and the original 100-1 odds were actually correct. When the final results came in it was 442 to 89 for Eisenhower, less than one percent off of the UNIVAC's original prediction.

Later that night Collingwood had to admit that the computer was accurate and they had covered it up.

The event was a great success and UNIVAC soon became a generic term for computer. The UNIVAC and ENIAC also inspired the term "brainiac" for a particularly intelligent person.

For the next election in 1956, the networks relied on computer analysis of the results, and still do today.

Also see:

For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on November 4, 2013 and edited on November 4, 2016.

Loading comments...

Write a Comment

To comment please Log In