Dimming the lights only one skill of the giant UNIVAC

The UNIVAC 1 was the first-ever commercial computer, first shipped in 1951 by New York-based Remington Rand, also inventor of the electric razor.

The UNIVAC 1 was monstrous by today’s standards. Its weight was measured in tons. It was about three metres long, two metres wide and almost three metres high, and it was priced in the neighbourhood of several million dollars.

It was possible to walk inside it because most of the computer circuitry was placed on the outside walls in order to help with the cooling. UNIVAC also used water coolers, which vented to the outside. When one was installed at the Sun Life Insurance company in Montreal, the cooler in its office tower produced visible vapour in cold weather, which came to be known by staff as “Unismoke.”

That was only one way to tell when a UNIVAC was running. It took enormous power to run the computer — so much that when it was switched on the surge dimmed all the lights in the surrounding neighbourhood. It was also very susceptible to local power surges.

To process data, UNIVAC 1 relied on both magnetic tape and punch cards. The latter contained 90 columns, each with the coded equivalent of a character or number. The data storage device was a cardboard box. Data on these cards entered the computer via card readers. For magnetic tape, data was coded along the length of a reel. A character or number would consist of seven or eight magnetized spots across the width of the tape. Early tapes were quite heavy, so UNIVAC developed a very useful “key to tape” machine, known as a Unityper, which never did catch on, possibly because the data on the metal tape could not be seen.

One striking feature was the UNIVAC’s memory, which consisted of a large tank of mercury that had to be maintained at a constant temperature, taking about 20 minutes to reach operating temperature. Electrical signals were converted and sent through the mercury as sound waves, and converted back to electrical signals at the other end. By knowing the speed of sound in mercury, you knew when any particular set of data might be available. The time to get the data while it was in the mercury (where it was unavailable for use) was called the “latency time.”

At this time, UNIVAC application programming was done in a machine-like language, but a commander in the U.S. Navy named Grace Hopper, attached to the Remington Rand company head office in Philadelphia, attempted to develop an English-like language for the programming of business applications. Canadians helped in the early editions of the language. The work was a success, and the first version was called B0, but was changed to B1 for obvious reasons. It was a very symbol-oriented language but in later years was improved considerably becoming the almost universal language for programming business applications, eventually called COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language).

At the time of the UNIVAC, selling computers meant having to analyze a customer’s needs and deliver it at a reasonable cost. Two Rand staff members established an effective technique, called the “broad brush study,” whereby a representative selection of key managers plus a selection of the actual working group was interviewed to get the big picture.

A total of 46 UNIVAC I systems were eventually built and delivered. Remington Rand’s razor division was later sold to U.S. entrepreneur Victor Kiam, while the merged Sperry/Rand entity is known today as Unisys Corp.

Hodson is an Ottawa-based IT industry veteran who has helped develop Canadian computer science programs. Contact him at genetix@rogers.com.

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