Science & Technology

From UNIVAC to Google

A computer in every kitchen?


The 1969 Neiman Marcus catalog included a futuristic product called the Honeywell Kitchen Computer. The red and white trapezoidal machine came equipped with an H316 minicomputer, a pedestal, a cutting board, and a handful of preprogrammed recipes. This tarted-up recipe box—which did not slice, dice, or make julienne fries—could be yours for a mere $10,600. None was sold, probably because in 1969 that sum could purchase at least three automobiles. It didn't help that the only interface was a collection of blinking lights and switches, or that you needed two weeks of classes to learn to use the bulky machine. In the end, there wasn't a single '60s housewife willing to learn binary to access her own recipes.

The kitchen computer, like the much more user-friendly Mac Powerbook on which this article was written, was descended from UNIVAC, the first commercial computer in the United States. Brought to market by the now defunct company Remington Rand in 1951, UNIVAC (an acronym for Universal Automatic Computer) did not incorporate a single recipe for Jell-O salad. It did, however, accurately predict Eisenhower's surprise landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential election using a small sample of voters in key states. In Core Memory: A Visual History of Vintage Computers (Chronicle Books), former Wired culture editor John Alderman writes that this demonstration of predictive prowess "helped further solidify the hopes and fears that the general public had about these wondrous but scary machines."

Core Memory's glowing, vibrant photographs of ancient computers capture the complicated, worshipful, suspicious relationship we have always had with our machines. To modern Americans, the constant physical tune-ups required by the room-sized UNIVAC—its 5,000 vacuum tubes burned out one at a time and had to be replaced constantly—and the weeks of binary lessons for the Kitchen Computer seem ridiculously laborious, especially for such a small amount of computing power. But even as our computers become mightier, they still demand our constant attention and loving vigilance with their software updates, virus protection, chiming alerts for incoming mail, and occasional crashes. Lest we look down our noses at the devoted operators of those early elephantine calculators, consider how much time you spend worshiping at the altar of your computer—awaiting its pronouncements, diagnosing its illnesses, asking it to spit back your own words and thoughts.

UNIVAC, with its mercury-filled main memory tank (pictured at right) was the first to store programs and data on tapes instead of punch cards, inaugurating decades of fear that our computers would somehow lose our data—something that (irrationally) caused less anxiety when information was stored on perishable paper punch cards. Salesmen from competitor IBM amped up the anxiety by suggesting that UNIVAC's spinning metal tape posed a safety hazard.

This fearsome machine also helped inspire the 1955 Isaac Asimov short story "Franchise," set in a future America governed by an "electronic democracy." The machine that bears the burden of most decision making is MULTIVAC, an immense and nearly omniscient underground machine. In real life, the U.S. Census Bureau bought the first UNIVAC; in Asimov's delicately menacing story, the MULTIVAC contains such detailed census data about every citizen that when voting time comes the only information the computer needs to decide an election is an interview with one person, selected as the "most representative" American.

These days the presence of relatively dumb computers in our voting booths makes us jittery. We fear they will be co-opted, reprogrammed, or biased by their makers to favor one party or another. Instead of putting our trust in these tiny modern equivalents of MULTIVAC, we fret about the machines' smallest malfunctions and their potential for corruption. Asimov was wrong in his prediction that computers would get bigger and bigger, sprawling underground. But he was right that we would come to depend on these machines. Many of us tote our laptops and PDAs around as if they were small children.

The mechanistic, industrial look of the megacomputers of the '50s gave way to the Kitchen Computer's sleek lines and blinking lights, but it wasn't until Apple started making computers that looked like compact, nonthreatening office machines that they snuck into our daily lives. In the electronic Eden of 1976, the Apple I sold as a kit for $666.66. The kits allowed users to assemble the working parts and then bolt their own computers onto wooden boxes. Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak preassembled 50 of them, to be sold at the Byte Shop in Mountain View, California. The Apple I wasn't a huge seller, but the prefabricated Apple II, with its own snazzy beige box, was the breakout product that established Apple and helped turn personal computers from a home-brewed curiosity into a household commodity.

As our computers shrank and their power grew, our dreams for them got big again; utopian Internet visions began to take hold. William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer popularized the concept of "cyberspace," described as "a consensual hallucination…abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system." In 1990 the science fiction writer Douglas Adams wrote and starred in a "fantasy documentary" called Hyperland, which predicted an Ask Jeeves–like electronic butler, indulging our every informational desire, a couple of years before Web browsers had even been invented. The computer with all the answers is once again at hand.

And the Kitchen Computer? Four decades after Honeywell's disaster, the idea of a computer as a cookbook has finally been realized in the form of Google, which for a new generation is fast becoming the cookbook of first resort. Decades of devotion to our machines are paying dividends, and using a search engine to figure out what's for dinner certainly beats learning binary.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of Reason.