Monday, September 19, 2011

Coverup of first computer-projected election

Walter Cronkite was on the air in the first election whose results were projected by a computer in 1952 and he lied. With 5 per cent of election returns the UNIVAC computer projected a landslide by Eisenhower. But Cronkite wouldn't say that; he said it projected a close victory... Why? The New York elite expected Stevenson to win. Where did Cronkite get his reputation a the straight-shooting news reporter?
Ars Technica
... On that night they witnessed the birth of an even newer technology—a machine that could predict the election's results. Sitting next to the desk of CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite was a mockup a huge gadget called a UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), which Cronkite explained would augur the contest. J. Presper Eckert, the UNIVAC's inventor, stood next to the device and explained its workings. The woman who actually programmed the mainframe, Navy mathematician Grace Murray Hopper was nowhere to be seen; for days her team had input voting statistics from earlier elections, then wrote the code that would allow the calculator to extrapolate the contest based on previous races.

To the disquietude of national pollsters expecting a Stevenson victory, Hopper's UNIVAC group predicted a huge landslide for Eisenhower, and with only five percent of the results. CBS executives didn't know what to make of this bold finding. "We saw [UNIVAC] as an added feature to our coverage that could be very interesting in the future," Cronkite later recalled. "But I don't think that we felt the computer would become predominant in our coverage in any way."

And so CBS told its audience that UNIVAC only foresaw a close race. At the end of the evening, when it was clear that UNIVAC's actual findings were spot on, a spokesperson for the company that made the machine was allowed to disclose the truth—that the real prediction had been squelched.

"The uncanny accuracy of UNIVAC's prediction during a major televised event sent shock waves across through the nation," notes historian Kurt W. Beyer, author of Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. "In the months that followed, 'UNIVAC' gradually became the generic term for a computer."

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