On this day in 1951, my profession was, essentially “born”.
Today marks the anniversary of the unveiling of the UNIVAC, the world’s first commercially produced and available electronic digital computer in the United States. The first electronic computers were invented during World War II by the military. Engineers in Great Britain invented the Colossus computer to help break Nazi codes, and engineers in the United States invented the ENIAC, to help calculate the trajectories of missiles.
The ENIAC used 17,468 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed 30 tons, was roughly 8 feet by 3 feet by 100 feet, took up 1800 square feet, and consumed 150 kW of power. The ENIAC radiated so much heat that industrial cooling fans were needed to keep its circuitry from melting down. It took two days to reprogram it for each new task.
The men who created the ENIAC decided to go into private business for themselves, and it was on this day in 1951 that they unveiled their first product, the UNIVAC I, the world’s first commercially available electronic computer. It was quite an improvement over the ENIAC, using a mere5,200 vacuum tubes, UNIVAC I weighed just 29,000 pounds (or 13 tons), consumed 125 kW, and could perform about 1,905 operations per second running on a 2.25 MHz clock, which was the fastest calculation rate in the world at the time. The Central Complex alone (i.e. the processor and memory unit) was 14 feet by 8 feet by 8.5 feet high. The complete system occupied more than 350 square feet of floor space.
The first customer to buy the UNIVAC was the United States Census Bureau, and the computer was used to predict the presidential election of 1952, after early returns began to come in. It correctly predicted that Eisenhower would win. Originally priced at $159,000, the UNIVAC I rose in price until they were between $1,250,000 and $1,500,000. A total of 46 systems were eventually built and delivered.
Thomas J. Watson, the chairman of IBM at the time, thought that computers, with all their incredibly complex vacuum tubes and circuitry, were too complicated. He famously said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” But with the invention of the microchip in 1971, all the processing power of those thousands of vacuum tubes and punch cards could suddenly be crammed into a space the size of a postage stamp. Within a decade, the first personal computers, or PCs, began to appear. Ironically, Apple made them popular and inexpensive enough for the home user and drove what we think of as the computer revolution.
But, it all started with UNIVAC. So, happy birthday, big guy. Thanks for being just delicate enough to keep me working!