Here’s a little history lesson I’m not sure our kiddos are learning is Social Studies these days: On Nov. 4, 1952, CBS News commissioned a Remington Rand Univac Mainframe I computer to help with predictions during its presidential election coverage. That computer correctly forecast the victory of Dwight D. Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson.
“This is not a joke or a trick, it’s an experiment.” CBS Reporter Charles Collingwood told viewers. “We think it’ll work. We hope it’ll work.”
Despite predictions of a close race between the two, the Univac predicted Eisenhower’s win after just 3 million votes had been tallied.
Collingwood was instructed to downplay the landslide the computer predicted because his boss believed the prediction was so skewed that it couldn’t possibly be accurate. So instead of telling viewers the computer’s actual prediction of 100 to 1, Collingwood said the computer was predicting 8 to 7 odds in favor of Eisenhower.
When the landslide win proved to be true, Collingwood announced that CBS had initially covered up the accurate prediction.
I learned about the Univac in the 4th grade and, along with several of my classmates, built what we interpreted the computer to look like. It was a big box, spray-painted silver and strung with Christmas lights. It was such an eyesore, in fact, that our school janitor, Bernie, mistakenly cut it apart with a box cutter and piled it up with the trash (I also recall a fair amount of 9-year-old tears when that happened). I later discovered that the actual Univac computer was only slightly more attractive than our rendering.
Trivia buffs out there may also know that Univac stood for “universal automatic computer,” and that the machine was also used in predicting the weather. This evening we’ll watch election results pour in, predicted from far more sophisticated computers, but I’m not convinced they’ll be any more accurate than those of the Univac 62 years ago.