Election Night: 1952, The First Computer Assisted Predictions
An Interesting Story…The computer was right but CBS balked
At CBS, Charles Collingwood sits in the Univac set on election night of 1952. What you see here is just for show as the actual computer was an 8 ton beast the size of a single car garage located in Philadelphia.
Univacs cost about $1 million apiece, the equivalent of more than $8 million in today’s money. The computer had thousands of vacuum tubes, which processed a then-astounding 10,000 operations per second (compared to 5 billion per second for today’s superfast chips).
Remington Rand approached CBS News in the summer of 1952 with the idea of using Univac to project the election returns. News chief Sig Mickelson and anchor Walter Cronkite were skeptical, but thought it might speed up the analysis somewhat and at least be entertaining to use an “electronic brain.”
The Univac in Philadelphia was connected to a teletype machine at the CBS studios in New York City. As the first precincts reported on election night, technicians used Unityper machines to encode the data onto paper tape to feed into Univac.
Pre-election polls had predicted anything from a Democratic landslide to a tight race with the Demo candidate, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, slightly ahead of the Republican, five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II.
So it was a surprise at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time when Univac predicted Eisenhower would pile up 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93. The odds of Eisenhower garnering at least 266 electoral votes — the minimum needed to win — were 100-1.
In New York, news boss Mickelson scoffed at putting the improbable prediction on air. In Philadelphia, Woodbury added new data to the mix. At 9 p.m. correspondent Charles Collingwood announced to the audience that Univac was predicting 8-7 odds for an Eisenhower win.
As the evening wore on, an Eisenhower landslide gathered momentum. The final vote was 442 to 89. Univac was less than 1 percent off. Late that night, Collingwood made an embarrassing confession to millions of viewers: Univac had made an accurate prediction hours before, but CBS hadn’t aired it.
The public was now sold on this computer stuff. By the 1956 presidential election, all three networks were using computer analysis of the results. It was here to stay.