Machines on a mission
The Univac was the first mass-produced computer
April 2, 1999
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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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