Computer Technology and its Early Impact on American Society
Computers, perhaps, are the most important innovation in the history of the world
to date. Without modern computers today, the world would not be able to function in the
manner of which people today are accustomed. Americans take for granted their ability to
go to a machine to withdraw cash, scan large amounts of groceries through a barcode
scanner, or type a report on a word processor. It is computers that make these tasks,
which most Americans take for granted, possible. These computers emerged in the mid-
twentieth century and, by the early 1980s, would become a part of mainstream American
Essentially, the modern infiltration of computers in American society is the
continuing result of what many consider a revolution. Like political revolutions and
industrial revolutions, the computer revolution is not one change or a few, small changes,
but rather a complex integration and interrelationship of almost innumerable changes.
To understand how computers changed American society, some background on
the development of the earliest computers is necessary. The origins of modern electronic
computing began as a result of the scientific emphasis behind World War II, especially the
need for mathematical computation .
The Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania was
the birthplace of the first electronic computer . This computer was called the Electronic
Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC , which was completed in 1946 by John
Mauchly and John Prosper Eckert .
As large of an achievement as the ENIAC was, it was hardly an ideal computer.
The ENIAC used approximately 18,000 vacuum tubes . The ENIAC also used
approximately 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 6000 switches, and 1500 relays .
Simply put, the ENIAC relied on an enormous amount of electronic parts and electricity.
This made the ENIAC rather prone to failure.
The ENIAC also had the problem of limited information storage . This problem
was addressed by the development of the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic
Computer, or EDVAC. The EDVAC was the first computer to use the concept of
information stored in memory. The EDVAC would also use binary numbers instead of
decimal numbers, which increased its computation abilities threefold . The EDVAC was
eventually completed in 1952 and its internal memory design paved the way for all future
By 1952, even as the earliest computers were still evolving, the computer created
perhaps its first big moment in the national limelight. The computer company Remington
Rand convinced the television network CBS to use their computer, the UNIVAC, to
predict the winner of the presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai
Stevenson . Stevenson was the early favorite in the polls, but the program used by the
UNIVAC predicted a landslide victory by Eisenhower.
On election night 1952, a mock UNIVAC was setup at UNIVAC headquarters
with CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite reporting at CBS headquarters. The event,
originally a publicity stunt by UNIVAC, was seen all across the United States . The
UNIVAC predicted the eventual Eisenhower victory by a 438 to 93 vote margin, which
nearly matched the actual outcome of 442 to 89 . The American public now had its first
taste of the potential power of computer technology in their everyday lives.
Besides the early recognition computers received by the prediction of a presidential
election, it was becoming increasingly necessary for a tool that could organize huge
amounts of statistical information, especially for business uses.
The Social Security Administration of the United States government was the first
federal bureaucracy to require the use of computers. The SSA originally used
electromechanical devices that processed information on punched cards . In 1954,
amendments to the Social Security Act required that a permanent record of every
American's annual income and a cumulative total of all individual be tallied .
With 320 million punch cards needing to be processed, the SSA was in danger of
being bogged down by such a huge amount of information processing. The IBM 705
computer, which was specially designed for the SSA, came to the rescue. Instead of using
punched cards, the IBM 705 used reels of magnetic tape to store information. Each tape
could store Social Security information of 60,000 individuals .
In the late 1950s, vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors as the primary parts
of computers . Transistors, unlike their vacuum tube predecessors, were much smaller
and generated much less heat ; consequently, transistors were much more efficient. A
new type of memory, called magnetic-core memory, increased access to stored
In the early 1960s, internal computer parts shrank
· 1 decade ago