The UNIVAC I (UNIVersal Automatic Computer I) was the first commercial computer produced in the United States. It was designed principally by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, the inventors of the ENIAC. Design work was started by their company, Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, and was completed after the company had been acquired by Remington Rand (which later became part of Sperry, now Unisys). In the years before successor models of the UNIVAC I appeared, the machine was simply known as “the UNIVAC”.

The first Univac was accepted by the United States Census Bureau on March 31, 1951, and was dedicated on June 14 that year. The fifth machine (built for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) was used by CBS to predict the result of the 1952 presidential election. With a sample of just 1% of the voting population it famously predicted an Eisenhower landslide while the conventional wisdom favored Stevenson.

Major physical features

UNIVAC I used 5,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 16,000 pounds (7.3 metric tons), consumed 125 kW, and could perform about 1,905 operations per second running on a 2.25 MHz clock. The Central Complex alone (i.e. the processor and memory unit) was 4.3 m by 2.4 m by 2.6 m high. The complete system occupied more than 35.5 m² (382 ft²) of floor space.

Main memory details

The main memory consisted of 1000 words of 12 characters. When representing numbers, they were written as 11 decimal digits plus sign. The 1000 words of memory consisted of 100 channels of 10-word mercury delay line registers. The input/output buffers were 60 words each, consisting of 12 channels of 10-word mercury delay line registers. There are six channels of 10-word mercury delay line registers as spares. With modified circuitry, seven more channels control the temperature of the seven mercury tanks, and one more channel is used for the 10 word “Y” register. The total of 126 mercury channels is contained in the seven mercury tanks mounted on the backs of sections MT, MV, MX, NT, NV, NX, and GV. Each mercury tank is divided into 18 mercury channels.

Each 10-word mercury delay line channel is made up of three sections:

  1. A channel in a column of mercury, with receiving and transmitting quartz piezo-electric crystals mounted at opposite ends.
  2. An intermediate frequency chassis, connected to the receiving crystal, containing amplifiers, detector, and compensating delay, mounted on the shell of the mercury tank.
  3. A recirculation chassis, containing cathode follower, pulse former and retimer, modulator, which drives the transmitting crystal, and input, clear, and memory-switch gates, mounted in the sections adjacent to the mercury tanks.

Instructions and data

Instructions were six alphanumeric characters, packed two instructions per word. The addition time was 525 microseconds and the multiplication time was 2150 microseconds. A non-standard modification called “Overdrive” did exist, that allowed for three four-character instructions per word under some circumstances. (Ingerman’s simulator for the UNIVAC, referenced below, also makes this modification available.)

Digits were represented internally using excess-3 (“XS3”) binary coded decimal (BCD) arithmetic with six bits per digit using the same value as the digits of the alphanumeric character set (and one parity bit per digit for error checking), allowing 11-digit signed magnitude numbers. But with the exception of one or two machine instructions, UNIVAC was considered by programmers to be a decimal machine, not a binary machine, and the binary representation of the characters was irrelevant. If a non-digit character was encountered in a position during an arithmetic operation the machine passed it unchanged to the output, and any carry into the non-digit was lost. (Note, however, that a peculiarity of UNIVAC I’s addition/subtraction circuitry was that the “ignore”, space, and minus characters were occasionally treated as numeric, with values of –3, –2, and –1 respectively, and the apostrophe, ampersand, and left parenthesis were occasionally treated as numeric, with values 10, 11, and 12.)

Input/output

Besides the operator’s console, the only I/O devices connected to the UNIVAC I were up to 10 UNISERVO tape drives, a Remington Standard electric typewriter and a Tektronix oscilloscope. The UNISERVO was the first commercial computer tape drive commercially sold. It used data density 128 bits per inch (with real transfer rate 7,200 characters per second) on magnetically plated phosphor bronze tapes. The UNISERVO could also read and write UNITYPER created tapes at 20 bits per inch. The UNITYPER was an offline typewriter to tape device, used by programmers and for minor data editing. Backward and forward tape read and write operations were possible on the UNIVAC and were fully overlapped with instruction execution, permitting high system throughput in typical sort/merge data processing applications. Large volumes of data could be submitted as input via magnetic tapes created on offline card to tape system and made as output via a separate offline tape to printer system. The operators console had three columns of decimal coded switches that allowed any of the 1000 memory locations to be displayed on the oscilloscope. Since the mercury delay line memory stored bits in a serial format, a programmer or operator could monitor any memory location continuously and with sufficient patience, decode its contents as displayed on the scope. The on-line typewriter was typically used for announcing program breakpoints, checkpoints, and for memory dumps.

A typical UNIVAC I installation had several ancillary devices. There were, typically: a printer that read a magnetic tape and printed output on continuous-form paper; a card-to-tape converter, that read punched cards and recorded their images on magnetic tape; and a tape-to-card converter, that read a magnetic tape and produced punched cards.