UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly, coinventors of the ENIAC, became the first people to exploit the potential commercial applications of computers when they introduced and sold the UNIVAC I.

Summary of Event

On March 31, 1951, the United States Census Bureau accepted delivery of the first UNIVAC. This powerful electronic computer, far surpassing anything then available in technological features and capability, ushered in the first computer generation and pioneered the commercialization of what had previously been the domain of academia and the interest of the military. The fanfare that surrounded this historic occasion, however, masked the turbulence of the preceding five years for the young upstart Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation[Eckert Mauchly Computer Corporation] (EMCC), which by this time was a wholly owned subsidiary of Remington Rand Corporation Remington Rand Corporation . UNIVAC Computers;commercial distribution [kw]UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer (Mar. 31, 1951) [kw]Commercial Electronic Computer, UNIVAC I Becomes the First (Mar. 31, 1951) [kw]Computer, UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic (Mar. 31, 1951) UNIVAC Computers;commercial distribution [g]North America;Mar. 31, 1951: UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer[03480] [g]United States;Mar. 31, 1951: UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer[03480] [c]Computers and computer science;Mar. 31, 1951: UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer[03480] [c]Science and technology;Mar. 31, 1951: UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer[03480] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Mar. 31, 1951: UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer[03480] [c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 31, 1951: UNIVAC I Becomes the First Commercial Electronic Computer[03480] Eckert, John Presper Mauchly, John William Von Neumann, John Aiken, Howard Stibitz, George

On election night, 1952, Walter Cronkite (right) and John Presper Eckert (center) stand behind a fake computer in the CBS news studio as it “predicts” the outcome of the presidential election. The real, sixteen-thousand-pound UNIVAC remained in Philadelphia, and programmers relayed its predictions to the studio.

(U. S. Census Bureau)

The early history of computers is a lively and controversial topic that has been the subject of countless debates with an abundance of personal antagonism, numerous articles and books (scholarly and otherwise), and landmark patent disputes and lawsuits. The relatively recent birth of the computer age and the resultant fact that many of the pioneers are still alive have sustained the conflicts and controversy. Since the late 1970’s, historians have begun to unravel and document the origins of computing. Many of the articles and books available are testimonial recollections by principals who participated in and molded the development of computers and thus represent an important but skewed contribution.

John Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly met in the summer of 1941 at the University of Pennsylvania. A short time later, Mauchly, then a physics professor at Ursinus College, joined the Moore School of Electrical Engineering Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and embarked on a crusade to convince others of the feasibility of electronic digital computers. Up to this time, the only computers available were the special-purpose, electromechanical analog computers called differential analyzers used to solve complex mathematical equations known as differential equations. Not only were these machines slow because of the need for human assistance and the operation of mechanical parts but they also were good only for solving a relatively narrow range of mathematical problems, thus the label “special-purpose.”

These early computers were also analog Analog representation in nature: The physical nature of the problem to be analyzed is modeled in the circuitry, and the solution of a different problem requires modification of that circuitry. Analog also means that values of parameters or quantities can take on a continuous range by representing these quantities by a voltage or current. Most computers (beginning with the ENIAC) are digital Digital representation in nature. The label “digital” means that processing is done on discrete or quantized values. Digital computers provide much more flexibility in that the simulation of the physical process is done in software (the sequence of instructions the computer executes) rather than in hardware (the physical circuitry of the computer).

Eckert and Mauchly landed a contract that eventually resulted in the development and construction of the world’s first operational general-purpose electronic digital computer: the ENIAC ENIAC . This computer, used eventually by the Army for the calculation of ballistics tables, was deficient in many obvious areas, but this was caused by economic rather than engineering constraints. One major deficiency was the lack of automatic program control; the ENIAC did not have stored program memory. This was addressed in the development of the EDVAC EDVAC , the successor to the ENIAC.

A symbiotic relationship had developed between Eckert and Mauchly that worked to their advantage on technical matters. They worked well with each other and this, in part, contributed to their success in spite of external obstacles. They both were interested in commercial applications of computers and envisioned uses for these machines far beyond the narrow military-related solutions of mathematical equations. This interest brought them into conflict with the administration at the Moore School, as well as with the noted mathematician John von Neumann, who “joined” the ENIAC/EDVAC development team in 1945. Von Neumann made significant contributions and added credibility to the Moore School group that often had to fight against the conservative scientific establishment characterized by Howard Aiken at Harvard University and George Stibitz at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Philosophical differences between von Neumann and Eckert and Mauchly, as well as patent issue disputes with the Moore School administration, eventually caused the resignation of Eckert and Mauchly on March 31, 1946.

Eckert and Mauchly, along with some of their engineering colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, formed the Electronic Control Company Electronic Control Company and proceeded to interest potential customers in an “EDVAC-type” machine. Mauchly approached the Census Bureau and the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). He had to negotiate with the NBS, since the Census Bureau was not permitted to contract on as-yet-unavailable equipment. A fixed-fee contract for $300,000 for an EDVAC-type computer was signed on September 25, 1946. Eckert and Mauchly had estimated a development cost of about $400,000, but they were optimistic that subsequent contracts would compensate for the initial loss. Their continual optimism and lack of business acumen led eventually to the demise of their company. Other factors that contributed to the continually precarious financial condition of the company were the roadblocks set up by the review committees and consultants made up of members of the scientific elite who, because of their involvement in alternate competing technology or out of personal dislike, made decisions that negatively affected funding for the company.

On May 24, 1947, the “EDVAC-type” machine became UNIVAC, an acronym for Universal Automatic Computer. This new computer would overcome the shortfalls of ENIAC and EDVAC (which was eventually completed by the Moore School in 1951). It would be a stored-program computer Computers;stored-program computing[stored program computing] and would allow input to and output from the computer via magnetic tape Computers;external storage Magnetic tape drives Magnetic storage devices . The prior method of input/output used “IBM” cards. This technique was extremely slow compared to the speed at which data in the computer could be processed. While Eckert concentrated on the technical side, Mauchly worked on getting more contracts and additional sources of funding.

Constraints imposed upon the two men by the nature of their contracts forced the newly renamed Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC) to find a buyer for the “intermediate” computer that could bring in funds to spur development of the UNIVAC. Mauchly interested Northrop Aircraft Corporation in this machine, which was called BINAC BINAC . Thus, during the years 1947 to 1949, EMCC worked on two computers. The engineering staff at EMCC still considered the UNIVAC its primary goal, and this resulted in yet more turmoil for Eckert and Mauchly, as Northrop accepted grudgingly a late and shoddily built BINAC that never worked to specification.

Once again, Eckert and Mauchly underestimated the costs of development and incurred a loss on the BINAC contract. This series of poor business decisions and other unfortunate circumstances forced EMCC eventually to look for a buyer. They found one in Remington Rand in 1950. Remington Rand built tabulating equipment and was a competitor of IBM. IBM was approached about buying EMCC, but negotiations fell apart. EMCC became a division of Remington Rand and now had access to the resources necessary to finish UNIVAC. In spite of all their obstacles, Eckert and Mauchly succeeded in producing the world’s first commercial electronic digital computer. UNIVAC quickly became a household word.


Eckert and Mauchly made a significant contribution to the advent of the computer age with the introduction of the UNIVAC I. Two visionary men, captured by the idea that the world was ready for computers, handicapped by their lack of financial resources and business acumen, and hampered by the conservative and biased scientific establishment, were able to create a landmark in computing. The words “computer” and “UNIVAC” simultaneously entered the vernacular as synonyms.

The inventors’ efforts were rewarded quickly, as contracts started to pour in, taking IBM by surprise and propelling Eckert and Mauchly into the national spotlight. This spotlight shone brightest, perhaps, on the eve of the national presidential election Presidential elections, U.S.;1952 of 1952 pitting the war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower against the statesman Adlai E. Stevenson. At the suggestion of the parent company Remington Rand, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was invited to use UNIVAC to predict the outcome of the election. Millions of television Television;news programs viewers watched as CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite “asked” UNIVAC for its predictions. A program had been written that analyzed the results of thousands of voting districts in the elections of 1944 and 1948. Based on only 7 percent of the vote, UNIVAC had Eisenhower winning by a landslide, in contrast with all the prior human forecasts of a close election. Surprised by this answer and not willing to suffer the embarrassment of being wrong, the programmers quickly tweaked the program to provide an answer closer to the polls. The outcome of the election, however, matched UNIVAC’s original answer. This prompted CBS commentator Edward R. Murrow’s famous quote, “The trouble with machines is people.”

The development of the UNIVAC I produced many technical innovations. Primary among these is the use of magnetic tape for input and output. To be useful, a computer needs a way to communicate with people. All computer systems have some arrangement for providing data (information) to the machine, that is, input, and for displaying the results of the computer’s work, that is, output. All machines that preceded the UNIVAC (with the exception of BINAC) used either paper tape or cards for input and cards for output. These methods were very slow and created a bottleneck for information.

The computers could add and subtract with lightning speed but had to slow down to read or write the data. In addition, these IBM cards could not hold much information, so that one had to use hundreds or thousands of cards to perform any task of significance. Indeed, the first test run of the ENIAC was a program written by Manhattan Project physicists to check the feasibility of a design for the hydrogen bomb that contained thousands of steps and about a million punch cards for the data.

The great advantage of magnetic tape was the ability to store thousands of cards worth of data on one 30-centimeter reel of tape. Another advantage was speed—of reading from and writing to tape. In spite of this superior technology, though, Eckert and Mauchly had to design and build card-to-tape and tape-to-card converters, since the industry was saturated with cards and was reluctant to risk conversion to an unproven technology. UNIVAC Computers;commercial distribution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Augarten, Stan. Bit by Bit: An Illustrated History of Computers. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1984. A superbly illustrated text filled with wonderful pictures that takes the reader on a journey through history from mechanical calculating aids of the Middle Ages to the integrated circuits in the personal computers of today.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burks, Alice R., and Arthur W. Burks. The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Strong. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987. Arthur Burks, a mathematician who worked on the ENIAC, is the champion of the cause of John Atanasoff. This well-written compilation presents a good case for the claim that Atanasoff created the first electronic computer and greatly influenced Mauchly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstine, Herman H. The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. A classic of computer history literature written by a mathematician who participated in the development of the ENIAC. It is readily evident in this book that Goldstine was in awe of von Neumann and affords him a greater role in computing history than warranted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hally, Mike. Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2005. A survey of the creation of the most important early computers, especially those designed by Eckert and Mauchly. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lundstrom, David E. A Few Good Men from Univac. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987. A fascinating tale by one of the “good men” from UNIVAC about events that occurred after 1952 and following the careers of several UNIVAC engineers, leading to the creation of Control Data Corporation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moreau, Rene. The Computer Comes of Age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984. This book serves as a classic in the distortion of computer history. Written by an IBM scientist, it emphasizes IBM’s early work and concentrates on subsequent IBM machines. For history buffs only.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shurkin, Joel. Engines of the Mind: A History of the Computer. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. A popular book that draws heavily from the work of Nancy Stern. Shurkin devotes considerable text to defending Eckert and Mauchly on the issue of the court battle about the ENIAC patent and the Atanasoff-Berry computer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stern, Nancy. From ENIAC to UNIVAC: An Appraisal of the Eckert-Mauchly Computers. Bedford, Mass.: Digital Press, 1981. This landmark volume should be the starting point of any serious inquiry into the early history of computers. In contrast to some of the testimonial books, Stern, in this publication of her doctoral thesis, is writing clearly from an objective vantage point.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wulforst, Harry. Breakthrough to the Computer Age. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. This well-written book provides an excellent portrayal of the development of the early computers from the ENIAC to the UNIVAC. Contains some pictures and the full story of the 1952 presidential election prediction by UNIVAC.

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Categories: History