advertising information
   personal technology

 custom news
 Headline News brief
 daily almanac
 CNN networks
 CNN programs
 on-air transcripts
 news quiz

CNN Websites
 video on demand
 video archive
 audio on demand
 news email services
 free email accounts
 desktop headlines

 message boards



The history of computing

Machines on a mission

Computerworld Flashback

   Flashback: The history of computing index

   Sign up for the Computer Connection email service

   For more computing stories


The Univac was the first mass-produced computer

April 2, 1999
Web posted at: 11:16 a.m. EST (1616 GMT)

by Mary Brandel

From television to the business world, computers in 1951 were infiltrating the national psyche. MIT's Whirlwind computer made its way onto national TV via the Edward Murrow series See It Now, the first programming textbook was published, and thanks to the Univac I, the business race for computer technology had begun.

Although other computers preceded it, the Universal Automatic Computer (Univac) was unique precisely because it was not unique. For the first time, a computer was built with the intention of duplication. Its designers -- J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly -- intended to build multiple machines of the same design and hoped to infiltrate the market that IBM owned, namely punched card machines processing business data.
  Computerworld's home page
  Flashback timeline
 Computerworld Year 2000 resource center
 Computerworld's online subscription center

REVIEWS & IN-DEPTH INFO AT home page's personal news page
  Search in 12 languages
  Subscribe to's free daily newsletter for IT leaders

  Computerworld Minute
  Fusion audio primers

The Times
April: Beat author Jack Kerouac writes "On the Road." (It was published six years later.)
July: The Fender Telecaster is introduced at a cost of $169.
September: The movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is released.
September: "The Adventures of Superman" debuts on TV, starring George Reeves.
December: Year-end Dow Jones Industrial Average: 269.22
Born in 1951
Esther Dyson
Jim Manzi
Jesse Ventura
Mark Hamill
Oscar winner for Best Picture: "An American in Paris"
No. 1 single: "Too Young," by Nat King Cole
NCAA football champion: University of Tennessee
NFL champion: Los Angeles
Cost of a gallon of gas: 27 cents

Cost of a 1951 Plymouth Concord two-door sedan: $1,673

Median income: $3,709

"Up until that point, every computer was one of a kind," says George Gray, a systems programming supervisor at the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, who also writes a Univac newsletter. "They were really in it as a business to make a bunch of these," he says. Unlike its research-intensive predecessors, the Univac also was built with business applications in mind.

Its use of magnetic tape (and hence fast I/O) was perfect for applications such as inventory, payroll and billing in addition to computation-intensive research applications. "The Univac introduced the use of the magnetic tape drive to be -- for its time -- a high-volume I/O mechanism," Gray says.

The first Univac customer was actually a government entity, the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1952, two other government entities -- the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force -- had purchased Univacs as well, the Air Force for keeping inventory.

The first business to buy a Univac was General Electric Co. in 1953, to process payroll. By the late 1950s, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse Electric Corp., Alcoa, Pittsburgh Plate Glass and numerous insurance companies had followed suit. By 1957, when the Univac I was retired, 46 Univacs had been bought at about $1 million a pop to process business and government applications.

The Univac was also remarkable for its use of cutting-edge computer techniques, according to the Jones Telecommunications and Multimedia Encyclopedia. Those included stored memory (the ability to hold both a stored program and data), conditional control transfer, which allowed the computer to stop and be resumed, and the central processing unit, which allowed all computer functions to be coordinated through one source.

Meanwhile, the Whirlwind was making its mark in the military. The computer was conceived as a U.S. Navy flight simulator, and development had begun in 1946. But it didn't take long for project leaders Jay Forrester and Robert Everett to see the limitations of analog techniques and decide to use digital processing instead. (Everett went on to found The Mitre Corp.)

And so it was that from 1947 to 1951, the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory designed the Whirlwind I, the first digital computer at MIT. Its mission was redefined several times, and it was finally seen as a way to test the use of computers in military combat information systems.

The project also yielded several technologies still in use today. One is RAM, which became available in 1953. According to the Virtual Computer History Museum, the concept for core memory had been patented by An Wang at Harvard University in 1949, "but his technique involved using the cores on single wires to form delay lines. The Whirlwind Project conceived the technique of stringing the cores onto a matrix of wires and thus producing a random access memory."

According to Forrester, today's computers use more technologies common to the Whirlwind than any other computer of its time, including parallel data transmission.

Forrester left the computing field in 1956. According to Forrester, there has never been a more productive decade for computing technology than the one from 1946 to 1956. Certainly after 1951, whether you were a computer skeptic or a cheerleader, the technology could no longer be ignored.

Brandel, a freelance writer and editor in Norfolk, Mass., can be reached at

Space entrepreneur may inspire 'rocket boys' for a new millennium
March 1, 1999
First computer turns 50
February 1996

Cast your vote in Computerworld's survey of the most important IT products of the 20th century
First 50 years of computing complete timeline
John Mauchly's widow, Kay Mauchly Antonelli, shares some reflections on his life
1951: Machines on a mission
1951: Women in computing
1952: Univac predicts election, a Q&A with Walter Cronkite

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

Computer Museum of America
Perspectives of the Smithsonian: Smithsonian Computer History
American Computer Museum
The Computer Museum

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

Enter keyword(s)   go    help

Back to the top   © 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.