TechMan: Origins of computer use for Election Night results worth mentioning

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Watching election returns on TV Tuesday night, it was obvious that the networks were relying heavily on computers to allow them to call races with just a small percentage of the vote in.

In fact, computers have become so entwined in voting and counting votes that it is no longer even worth mentioning.

But in 1952, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president against Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson, using a computer to predict the winner was considered revolutionary and daring.

One of TechMan's earliest memories is watching the 1956 Democratic convention on a small black-and-white DuMont. Being a TechTot, I thought it was hilarious when votes were called out for Estes Kefauver, pronounced KEE-FAAW-VUH.

But back to computers in politics.

Most credit for pioneering in the field of computer election prediction is given to CBS, which employed UNIVAC, the earliest commercial computer.

The Universal Automatic Computer was room-sized with 5,200 vacuum tubes and weighed 29,000 pounds. It could perform 1,905 operations per second running at 2.25 Mhz. By comparison, a modern cell phone runs at 1,400 Mhz.

CBS did not actually own a UNIVAC. By 1956 there were fewer than 20 in the country, including two in Pittsburgh, one at U.S. Steel and one at Westinghouse.

Instead, Charles Collingwood sat in front of a mock-up of a UNIVAC console in the New York studios while the computer and its operators were in Philadelphia.

The first UNIVAC was sold to the United States Census Bureau in 1951. The fifth machine, built for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was the one used by CBS to predict the result of the 1952 presidential election, according to Wikipedia.

Mr. Collingwood went out of his way to humanize the machine because CBS was afraid that the audience would be put off. According to NPR, when CBS showed the computer in Philadelphia on the screen, Mr. Collingwood said. "On the right of the UNIVAC, there's something which looks like a typewriter. That's the way UNIVAC talks." It seems like idiot talk, but, remember, most people had never seen a computer.

He later remarked of UNIVAC that, "He's sitting there in his corner humming away."

That election night in 1952 was a night of firsts, according to NPR. In addition to being the first use of a computer to predict an election, it was the first coast-to-coast television broadcast of a presidential election and the first election-night broadcast anchored by Walter Cronkite.

Things went well for UNIVAC that night. It was humans who lost faith.

"Have you got a prediction for us, UNIVAC?" Mr. Collingwood asked early in the evening.

The printer did not clack out a response.

"You're a very impolite machine I must say," Mr. Collingwood said. "But he's an awfully rapid calculator."

The lack of response continued during the next few times Mr. Cronkite turned to UNIVAC that night.

But in Philadelphia, UNIVAC did respond. The response was not revealed probably because the computer programmers felt the prediction was ridiculous, according to NPR.

Before the election, the race had looked close. But early in the night, with just over 3 million votes counted, UNIVAC predicted the odds were 100 to 1 in favor of Mr. Eisenhower.

"It's awfully early, but I'll go out on a limb. ... The chances are now 00 to 1 in favor of the election of Eisenhower," the printout read, saying 00 instead of 100 because the programmers never imagined needing an odd greater than two digits.

According to NPR, after midnight a Remington Rand representative came on the air and said, "As more votes came in, the odds came back and it was obviously evident that we should have had the nerve enough to believe the machine in the first place. It was right. We were wrong. Next year we'll believe it."

NBC used a smaller computer, called the Monrobot, in 1952 and it also predicted an Eisenhower landslide.

NBC shied away from using computers in the 1954 election, according to Ira Chinoy, associate dean of journalism at the University of Maryland, who wrote about the early use of computers on election night. The network felt that human predictors were more accurate.

But all three networks were using computers by the next presidential election in 1956, Mr. Chinoy said.

The machine had entered presidential politics.

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Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman. Watch and listen to TechTalk at multimedia.post-gazette.com.


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