The Night a UNIVAC Computer Predicted The Next President: NOV. 4, 1952

In 1952, a UNIVAC (universal automatic computer) I mainframe computer was used to predict the result of the US presidential election.

The UNIVAC was in Philadelphia where statistician Max Woodbury worked on algorithms and entered the data, and CBS’ Charles Collingwood was reporting. It was connected to a teletype machine at the CBS studios in New York City, where Eckert was on hand to explain how it worked and Walter Cronkite was on the air.

The election pitted General Dwight D Eisenhower against Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, and opinion polls were favoring Stevenson.

The computer’s early prediction, made before polls were even closed on the West Coast, was that Eisenhower would collect 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93, and had 100-1 odds of winning.

Convinced it was wrong, CBS suggested the computer wasn’t working and had Woodbury rework his algorithm. The computer then produced 8-7 odds in favor of Eisenhower, which CBS was comfortable reporting.

Woodbury soon realized he missed a 0 when re-entering the data, and the original 100-1 odds were actually correct. When the final results came in it was 442 to 89 for Eisenhower, less than one percent off of the UNIVAC’s original prediction.

Later that night Collingwood had to admit that the computer was accurate and they had covered it up.

The event was a great success and UNIVAC soon became a generic term for the computer. The UNIVAC and ENIAC also inspired the term “brainiac” for a particularly intelligent person.

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