UNIVAC makes history

On March 31st, 1951, Remington Rand delivered UNIVAC, the first commercial computer produced in the US, to the US Census Bureau. It competed with, and ultimately replaced, punch-card machines. It used about 5,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 16,686 pounds (7.5 tons), consumed 125 kW, and could perform about 1,905 operations per second. It sprang to fame in the 1952 Presidential election when, with a sample of just 1% of the voting population, it went against the pollsters' verdict for Stevenson, and correctly predicted instead a landslide for Eisenhower.

Although it originally sold at $159,000, the UNIVAC's price increased until it reached between $1,250,000 and $1,500,000. A total of 46 of them were eventually built and delivered. No-one foresaw at the time that computers would become so inexpensive, so light, and so powerful. Indeed, many famous people have made wildly inaccurate predictions about the march of technology. Thomas Watson, president of IBM, said in 1943, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." He was probably thinking of ones that weighed tons and used thousands of vacuum tubes.

Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, remarked in 1977, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Yet within a generation, virtually every home in a developed country had one, and a few years later virtually every child in a developed country had one in his or her pocket. There have been just as wrong predictions made by others. In 1998 Nobel laureate Paul Krugman confidently asserted, "By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s." He is as confident and as wrong about most things he writes about in the New York Times.

People today make stark predictions about the likely impact of technological innovations, usually about their effect on jobs. Typewriters reduced the demand for scribes to near zero, and electronic calculators cut the jobs of comptometer operators. No doubt UNIVAC and its successors did away with Hollerith and other punch card machines, together with the experts who operated them.

But always in the past, innovations such as these have created many more jobs than they have cost, and have raised wages and living standards with the increased productivity they make possible. There is no reason to suppose that the advent of Artificial Intelligence, which doomsayers tell us will threaten many jobs, will be any different. It will increase productivity and wealth, and it will lead to new jobs being generated.

If someone doubtfully asks, "What kind of jobs will be created?" The answer is that this is unpredictable. We simply don't know what human tastes and needs will be, or how people will choose to spend their new-found wealth and leisure. Many of today's jobs simply didn't exist a generation or so ago. And many of the future's jobs simply don't exist today.