Cleaning up with Univacs

COMPUTER: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell- Kelly & William Aspray, HarperCollins pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
The computer made its grand public debut on the night of the American presidential election in 1952, thanks to a deal between Remington Rand and the CBS television network. Before any of the returns were announced, the UNIVAC machine boldly predicted that Eisenhower would beat Adlai Stevenson by a landslide, though the pollsters were anticipating a close race. The UNIVAC's minders lost their nerve, suppressed the figures, and altered the computer's settings to produce a forecast closer to received wisdom. But the final scoreline of electoral college votes turned out to be almost exactly what UNIVAC had originally predicted.

This may have been the last occasion on which the computer was undersold. As our familiarity with the technology increases, we accumulate quibbles - the way the Internet slows to first gear in the afternoons, the absurdity of buying a pounds 2,000 system which will be outdated in nine months - that help us deny its power. The industry responds with more and more firework displays: if you thought the Windows 95 launch was excessive, imagine what Microsoft will come up with for the millennium.

The result is an affectation of cynicism spread on top of an unacknowledged sense of awe. It makes Peter Snow, who brings vaudeville to virtual reality, the perfect mediator between technology and the public. We will chuckle on the night of 1 May, and we will be ready to scoff, but we will secretly be impressed by the BBC's digital representation of our democracy.

This ambivalence scarcely makes for clarity of thought about the dominant technology of our time. Nor do the two dominant modes of commentary upon it. On one hand, there are millennial prophecies about the assumption of humanity to a higher sphere of electronic consciousness; on the other, a train of instant opinions that bob in the wake of their underlying concern, the share prices of digital enterprises.

Taking a longer view, Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray appreciate the transience of electronic glories. After Eisenhower's election had given the public its first sight of an "electronic brain", they recall, people referred to computers in general as "Univacs". But unlike "Hoover" or "Xerox", the brand didn't have the staying power to become a verb. Instead, Remington Rand was beaten in the first computer war by IBM, which today finds itself eclipsed by Microsoft.

Meanwhile, a pack of commentators indulge in wild speculation about the future, and neglect to take stock of how we got to the present. Computer shows what a fascinating story that is. Apart from the refreshing change made by the sensible tone and considered analysis, it is a valuable reminder of the real driving forces behind the computer industry. Computing has waxed fat not on guided missiles and graphics, but airline tickets and census data. The two mighty limbs it stands upon are commercial and bureaucratic data-processing.

UNIVAC was a case in point. The first UNIVAC machine was ordered by the US Census Bureau, whose demands back in 1890 had stimulated the first great leap forward in the automation of information processing, using punched cards. (Those demands, one might note, were inflated by the bureau's insistence on sorting the population into racial categories, including four degrees of blackness.) The second UNIVAC was ordered by the A C Nielson market-research firm, and the third by the Prudential.

UNIVAC number one was operated for several months at the manufacturer's, for fear that moving it would damage it. In the Sixties, computer enthusiasts envisaged a more convenient arrangement, in which users could tap into giant computers via remote terminals, as electricity users tap into power stations. Now the power fits in our pockets. This is a story that runs counter to our intuitions about how things happen. Computer makes it make sense by going back a hundred years to the time when, as the first chapter notes, computers were people.