Geek Trivia

Early On, The UNIVAC Computer Made International News By Accurately Predicting A?

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Answer: U.S. Presidential Election

In the early days of computing, computers were massive, far removed from the public, and used for dry (and often secretive) matters like military and engineering calculations. In fact, in the 1950s, the average person would not only have no experience with a computer at all, but there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have even seen one either.

With that in mind, it was quite a publicity stunt when, on November 4, 1952, CBS enlisted the help of the Remington Rand Corporation to use their hulking vacuum tube-filled UNIVAC computer to predict the results of the U.S. Presidential election (which saw Dwight Eisenhower face off against Adlai Stevenson).

Taking on the task was a big gamble for Remington Rand because if the computer was really wrong (or worse, simply failed to perform the task at all), it would, thanks to the high visibility stunt broadcast nationwide on election night, shake the public trust in the budding computer industry.

The outcome of the UNIVAC’s computations, however, proved to be so wildly in favor of Eisenhower (and thus wildly accurate) that the computer’s programmers held off on reporting the results to the news team, led by Charles Collingwood and Walter Cronkite—believing that the machine was in error when it predicted 100 to 1 odds in favor of Eisenhower. In fact, the actual printout was “00” to “1” odds, because the programmers hadn’t even considered the possibility that the odds could be so in favor of one candidate as to generate a three digit number.

Despite how the computations were downplayed on the actual night, in the aftermath of election night, the news had a field day with the computer’s results. The gamble paid off in spades for the Remington Rand Corporation when their room-sized computer proved to be quite the election predictor and the world couldn’t stop talking about it.

Image courtesy of CBS/Remington Rand.