The computer that launched an industry

Recently, UNIVAC celebrated its 50th anniversary. Before you respond by asking "So what?", read Bob Weinstein's case study in technological evolution.

The recent anniversary of UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) shows us just how far the computer industry has come in 50 years. UNIVAC played a starring role in launching the industry and the hundreds of jobs that emerged as it grew.

The goliath computer was housed in a case the size of a one-car garage. It was actually a walk-in computer protected by hinged metal doors. UNIVAC was 25 feet by 50 feet, weighed 29,000 pounds, and was powered by 5,500 vacuum tubes and 18,000 crystal diodes. It took several hundred employees four years to design and build the first machine. Cost? $1 million per unit.

UNIVAC was the first mass-produced computer (46 were built). Its first customer was the U.S. Bureau of Census, followed by large corporations that used it for business applications, such as payroll and inventory control. The colossal machine drew national attention in 1952 when it predicted Dwight Eisenhower would take the presidential race with a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson.

But UNIVAC wasn’t the first supercomputer. It was preceded by ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) built at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. ENIAC boasted 18,000 vacuum tubes and took up 1,800 square feet. Today, equivalent technology can be found in a wristwatch. “The difference between UNIVAC and ENIAC was memory capability,” explains Leo Daiuto, corporate vice president of product development and technology at Unisys Corporation in Blue Bell, PA. “ENIAC was an enormous calculator, whereas UNIVAC could also handle storage of data and programs.”

The birth of the IT profession
Building the giant computer turned into a mini-industry, creating a demand for builders and technicians. “It took a long time to build UNIVAC because everything was done by hand,” says Daiuto. “Information was written on paper; facts and figures were stored in people’s heads.”

Not many career tracks existed back then either. Computer science, as we know it today, and IT (information technology) didn’t exist. “The only skilled professionals needed to build UNIVACs were electrical engineers, who designed the hardware, and mathematicians (also called ’computers‘), who did all the coding,” says Daiuto. “It wasn’t long before ‘computers’ were called ‘programmers.’ The development of computer languages like Flowmatic (an early version of COBOL) made coding easier.”

Jerry Smoliar, 83, remembers the changes that shaped the emerging computer industry when he joined UNIVAC as an electrical engineer in 1947. “As computers had more capabilities, new skills were needed,” says Smoliar. “Greater emphasis was placed on software to develop programs. By the late 1940s, we were experimenting with transistors, but they weren’t used until 1954.” By then, systems engineers were needed to manage the projects and provide technical guidance and supervision. “Soon networking skills were also needed,” says Smoliar. “Even in those early days we found it necessary to connect two computers separated by distance.”

Rapid changes soon followed. New companies sprung up, and the demand for computer skills increased. Job-hopping was commonplace. “As new jobs opened up, technical people shuffled from one job to another,” says Smoliar.

From the past to the future
By the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the computer industry had moved into high gear. “Vacuum tubes were replaced by chips, which could have 15,000 transistors on them,” says Daiuto. “That was a lot back then.”

Consider this once startling bit of computer history. In 1965, Gordon Moore, who cofounded Intel in 1968, observed that microchip capacity doubled every 18-24 months (a process known as Moore’s Law). Former Intel CEO Andy Grove predicted Intel would ship a processor with 1 billion transistors in 2011, confirming Moore’s observation. Now, many industry pundits see silicon technology reaching its physical limits around 2017.

You can appreciate the technology industry even more by looking at the jobs that emerged each decade as new breakthroughs were made. It’s mind-boggling to think that a few technical skills opened the doors for hundreds more—not to mention an endless stream of acronyms. The evolution of the computer industry proves that the process of discovery is infinite. Consider the jobs that will emerge in biotechnology, voice recognition, robotics, and wireless technology, to name only a few.

What about the technologies that are still on the drawing board? It means jobs and careers yet to be named. Ponder that.

What new technologies are you keeping an eye on?
As Bob Weinstein’s column shows, technology not only evolves quickly, it also changes the landscape of the society in which we live. What new trends can you spot on the horizon? What impact will advances in wireless, robotics, biotech, and voice recognition have on your areas of expertise? If silicon technology hits the wall in 2017, where will new breakthroughs be found? Send us your visionary e-mail or post a prophetic comment below.


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