Ceruzzi, Paul. “The Advent of Commercial Computing, 1945-1956.” A History of Modern Computing. 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. 13-46. Print.

January 25, 2010


Ceruzzi traces the development of commercial computing by narrating its history in relation to the most influential machine birthed from that era, the UNIVAC, “Universal Automatic Computer,” completed in 1951 by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. The UNIVAC was designed as a system with an internal design that allowed users to manipulate it based on the problems to be solved. Its internal memory and use of tape for input/output made for a much faster machine, which helped with sorting data as an “information processing system,” fulfilling a growing need for businesses. The UNIVAC’s ability to automate functions, saved companies time and labor, helped its assent and influence on subsequent computers, such as IBM’s 701. Although Ceruzzi touches on other technology, including the drum, the purpose of this chapter is to explain how the UNIVAC’s design made it the first true electronic computer.


Computing after 1945 is a story of people who at critical moments redefined the nature of the technology itself. In doing so they opened up computing to new markets, new applications, and a new place in the social order. (14)

The acronym came from “Universal Automatic Computer,” a name that they chose carefully. “Universal” implied that it could solve problems encountered by scientists, engineers, and businesses. “Automatic” implied that it could solve complex problems without requiring constant human intervention or judgment, as existing techniques required. (15)

No one who saw a UNIVAC failed to see how much it differed from existing calculators and punched card equipment. It used vacuum tubes – thousands of them. It stored data on tape, not cards. It was a large and expensive system, not a collection of different devices. The biggest difference was its internal design, not visible to the casual observer. The UNIVAC was a “stored program” computer, one of the first. More than anything, that made it different from the machines it was designed to replace. (20)

Many design features that alter became commonplace first appeared in the UNIVAC: among them were alphanumeric as well as numeric processing, an extensive use of extra bits for checking, magnetic tapes for bulk memory, and circuits called “buffers” that allowed high-speed transfers between the fast delay line and slow tape storage units. (29)

To the extent that its customers perceived the UNIVAC as an “electronic brain,” it was because it “knew” where to find the desired data on a tape, could wind or rewind a tape to that place, and could extract (or record) data automatically. Customers regarded the UNIVAC as an information process system, not a calculator. As such, it replaced not only existing calculating machines, but also the people who tended them. (30)


How does this chapter – and the UNIVAC specifically – factor into the focus of this week theme, “what the web was built for”? That is, what role did these computers play in the development of the web?

Ceruzzi primarily focuses on the technical innovations of commercial computing, but does indicate a few of the social and cultural effects of them, such as the effect the tape system had on labor in companies. What might be some others? How would a more complete understanding of the history of computing, or perhaps of business, help to understand this?


One Response to “Ceruzzi, Paul. “The Advent of Commercial Computing, 1945-1956.” A History of Modern Computing. 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. 13-46. Print.”

  1. Rachael Says:

    Hi Jason,

    I too wonder about how these developments affected the every day experiences and practices of the people who used the machines. A lot of workers today note how expensive and time consuming it can be to learn a new technology for work purposes, especially when one has trained their brain to think in terms of a particular system… we know the scientists were excited, but what about the people who actually had to operate the machines? How much was error attributed to the machine versus the people working with them? What kinds of responsibility and pressure arose with these new machines?

    Ceruzzi also talked about how the enthusiasts had to prove cost efficiency through a dollar by dollar parallel to savings in human wages- where were these companies and what happened to the jobs replaced by the computers?

    Anywho- excellent question- I always have a hard time with “objective” histories that simply trace without providing power analysis.

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