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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1951!
Doctors Eckert and Mauchly, inventers of the original computer--ENIAC, found their first client in the United States Census Bureau. The Bureau needed a new computer to deal with the U.S. population that was exploding during a "baby boom."

In April 1946, a $300,000 deposit was given to Eckert and Mauchly for the development of new computer called the UNIVAC--UNIVersal Automatic Computer.

The research for the project proceeded badly, and it was not until 1948 that the actual design and contract was finalized. The Census Bureau's contract with Eckert and Mauchly was $400,000. Although the doctors were prepared to absorb any overrun in costs in hopes of recouping from future service contracts, the economics of the situation brought the inventors to the edge of bankruptcy.

In 1950, Eckert and Mauchly were bailed out by Remington Rand, Inc. (manufacturers of electric razors). The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation became the UNIVAC Division of Remington Rand.

Remington Rand's lawyers tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate the government contract. Under threat of legal action, however, Remington Rand had no choice but to complete the UNIVAC at the original price of $400,000.

On March 31, 1951, the Census Bureau accepted delivery of the first UNIVAC computer. The final cost of constructing the first UNIVAC was close to $1 million.

Forty-six UNIVAC computers were built for both government and business uses. Remington Rand became the first American manufacturer of a commercial computing system. Their first private sector contract was for General Electric's Appliance Park facility in Louisville, Kentucky, who used the UNIVAC computer for a payroll application.

As we all sit at our laptops, desktops, and portable computers reading this article, it's difficult to imagine UNIVAC's grand scale.  UNIVAC and its associated card readers, high speed readers, tape consoles, and control consoles filled an entire room! The computers were cooled by air conditioned air pumped up underneath a raised floor while heat was removed through air controls in the dropped ceilings. UNIVAC ran from floor to ceiling. The tape reels alone were more than 15" in diameter with each tape unit holding two reels -- a feed and takeup reel. And, for those of us old enough to remember, all programming was done by punchcards which were keyed first with the programming (each function on a separate card), then fed into a reader that told the computer how to run the program. We've come a long way, baby!

Specs for the UNIVAC:

  • add time of 120 microseconds
  • multiply time of 1,800 microseconds
  • divide time of 3,600 microseconds
  • input consisted of magnetic tape
    • with a speed of 12,800 characters per second
    • read-in speed of 100 inches per second
    • records at 20 characters per inch
    • records at 50 characters per inch
    • card to tape converter 240 cards per minute
    • 80 column punched card input 120 characters per inch
    • punched paper tape to magnetic tape converter 200 characters a second
  • output media/speed was magnetic tape
    • at 12,800 characters per second
    • uniprinter 10-11 characters per second
    • high speed printer at 600 lines per minute
    • tape to card converter at 120 cards per minute
    • Rad Lab buffer storage/Hg 3,500 microsecond or 60 words per minute.
  • The central processor was a 36 bit architecture capable of executing most simple arithmetic instructions in one 4 microsecond cycle time. Multiplication of two 36-bit integers took 12 microseconds, and division of a 72-bit dividend by a 36-bit divisor 31.3 microseconds. The processor performed 36-bit single precision floating point arithmetic in hardware, but did not implement double precision floating point.
  • UNIVAC has been, over the years, a registered trademark of Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, Remington Rand Corporation, Sperry Rand Corporation, Sperry Corporation, and Unisys Corporation. UNISERVO is a trademark of Sperry Rand Corporation, since merged into Unisys Corporation.
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