Monster computer lived in bunker at UNC-Chapel Hill

08/28/2014 8:03 PM

08/29/2014 4:50 AM

In the age of Google, it’s hard to remember that computers weren’t always a part of our daily lives. It was 55 years ago that one of the first Univac computers was installed in the basement of Phillips Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill, primarily to support the work of the U.S. Census Bureau with its upcoming 1960 census. But expectations ran high, right up to preserving life as we know it, if necessary. In 1959, The Associated Press introduced readers to the new computer age.

It weighs 19 tons and costs $2,400,000, but it can out-figure a hundred geniuses.

Sleek and metallic, its multi-unit body sprawls comfortably in a $1,200,000 underground home at the University of North Carolina, ready to answer some of man’s biggest problems in a millionth of a second.

It’s called Univac 1105, the most versatile of electronic brains yet created. Its awesome ability represents a giant step along the path of automation.

Univac, the egghead of all eggheads, boasts a vocabulary of 41,000 words – enough to shame most humans – but it really stands out in the world of figures.

In only minutes, Univac solves problems that would occupy dozens of top mathematicians for months. In high gear, it can add 30,000 11-digit numbers in a second and turn out more than 8,000 paychecks in an hour.

The giant computer soon will be working an eight-hour day for the U.S. Census Bureau.

The University obtained Univac through Remington Rand Co. Only two others of its design are in operation – one in the Census Bureau in Washington, the other at Armour Institute at the University of Illinois.

Remington Rand gave a 50 per cent reduction in the cost of the Univac set up here. The National Science Foundation contributed a $50,000 grant, and the Census Bureau paid $700,000 as an advance for work to be carried out by the big brain on the 1960 census.

Univac is housed in an underground building behind reinforced walls 16 inches thick. This would protect the delicate instruments and its computing sections in the event of atomic blasts and nuclear radiation.

Census Bureau officials, who have priority on Univac, plan to put it into operation by Aug. 17.

Between 20 and 30 skilled operators and maintenance people will be needed to run Univac at its maximum capability. But the money saved on 1960 census tabulations alone is expected to pay for the cost of the electronic whiz.

Univac, known technically as the Data Automation System, has all sorts of uses.

H. Burke Horton, an official of the U.S. Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, cites one of them:

“If our nation is ever beaten down to its knees by such a devastating blow as an atomic attack, the University of North Carolina computer, its staff personnel protected from fallout and blast effects by underground location, may help to save our civilization to recover our way of life.”

Univac also can assist in these areas:

Business – determining facts about sales, work loads, production control, budgets, inventory control, etc.

Language – translation from English into foreign language. At present, electronic computers are making progress on translation of Russian into English.

Medicine – exact analysis of simulated body actions, such as kidney functioning, exploring the chemistry of respiration and the minute calculations connected with health and disease.

Urban planning – determining facts about zoning and other problems of community growth.

Weather – computing information about temperature, pressure and humidity.

Military applications – computations on artificial satellites, their orbits, timetables and heights.

University officials estimate special use of Univac by outside agencies would cost about $400 an hour. “It must be remembered, however,” said a spokesman, “that the instrument can carry out a tremendous work load in a relatively short time. Then, too, if it is used for an extended period by such an agency, the cost would naturally drop.”

The state of North Carolina paid for the $1,200,000 building which houses Univac and its computer laboratory. The structure also contains space for expansion of the departments of mathematics and physics. The N&O, Aug. 9, 1959

In 2010, as the university was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the UNC Computation Center, the University Gazette noted that the Univac 1105 had a memory capacity of less than 50 kilobytes by today’s measures, the equivalent of one scanned 8-1/2 x 11 document page. It was 60 feet long and used 7,200 vacuum tubes. Its high-speed printer could output up to 600 lines per minute.

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.

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History fascinates us. We love to linger over old photographs or accounts of years long gone. Discovering our own personal histories can become an enjoyable pastime. This blog will provide some looks into that past. We'll look at NC history in general, and Triangle history in particular. We'll also try to give you the tips and tools (and connections) for looking at your own history.

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