“It’s awfully early, but I’ll go out on a limb.” These were the first words on the UNIVAC printout of the 1952 presidential prediction, the first time a computer was used to predict the outcome of a presidential election. Now a tradition of the presidential race and the election night broadcast, the UNIVAC, one of the world’s first commercial computers, became a part of history.
The very first coast-to-coast television broadcast of the presidential election was anchored by none other than Walter Cronkite himself. His colleague, CBS’s Charles Collingwood, introduced the machine to the audience.
The actual computer was over 100 miles away in Philadelphia, as it took up the better part of a room, so a mockup of the computer console about the size of a desk was built for the studio. Standing in front of the mockup, Collingwood told the CBS audience: “This is the face of UNIVAC. A UNIVAC is a fabulous electronic machine, which we have borrowed to help us predict this election from the basis of early returns as they come in.”
For the first coast-to-coast television broadcast of a presidential election, the UNIVAC added extra flare and excitement for the CBS audience. But for the company that made UNIVAC, Remington Rand, the pressure for success was immense: with a national audience this could push the company to the forefront of computing or set them back as a joke. And early in the evening, things started off a little rocky as Collingwood asked the computer “Have you got a prediction for us, UNIVAC?”
The typewriter on the console didn’t move. “You’re a very impolite machine I must say,” Collingwood responded. “But he’s an awful rapid calculator.” They received the same response a couple of times throughout the evening, but not because the machine had not made a prediction, but because the programmers held it back. Early in the night, with just over 3 million votes counted, the UNIVAC made a prediction that Eisenhower would win by a landslide.
Hours later, the computer printout was finally revealed. “It’s awfully early but I’ll go out on a limb… the chances are now 00 to 1 in favor of the election of Eisenhower.” The programmers didn’t program for three digits to print 100 as they never conceived that the odds could reach three digits.
After midnight, Art Draper, a Remington Rand representative in Philadelphia came on the air with an explanation for the delay. “As more votes came in, the odds came back and it was obviously evident that we should have had the nerve enough to believe the machine in the first place,” he elaborates on withholding the results. “It was right. We were wrong. Next year, we’ll believe it.”
These days we put a lot more faith in the “big electric brain” but it takes up much less space. Computerized predictions have become a part of the election broadcast, but the computers have increased in power and decreased in size. Now we have HPC solutions that compactly to fit your needs, including the Blackhole, an HPC that fits the size of a desktop tower! Imagine getting results at speeds that you can’t believe. Don’t you want to be ahead of the times?
-Written by Alexandra Goldina