Battle of the Brains: Election-Night Forecasting at the Dawn of the Computer Age

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This dissertation examines journalists' early encounters with computers as tools for news reporting, focusing on election-night forecasting in 1952. Although election night 1952 is frequently mentioned in histories of computing and journalism as a quirky but seminal episode, it has received little scholarly attention. This dissertation asks how and why election night and the nascent field of television news became points of entry for computers in news reporting.

 The dissertation argues that although computers were employed as pathbreaking "electronic brains" on election night 1952, they were used in ways consistent with a long tradition of election-night reporting.  As central events in American culture, election nights had long served to showcase both news reporting and new technology, whether with 19th-century devices for displaying returns to waiting crowds or with 20th-century experiments in delivering news by radio.

 In 1952, key players - television news broadcasters, computer manufacturers, and critics - showed varied reactions to employing computers for election coverage.  But this computer use in 1952 did not represent wholesale change.  While live use of the new technology was a risk taken by broadcasters and computer makers in a quest for attention, the underlying methodology of forecasting from early returns did not represent a sharp break with pre-computer approaches.  And while computers were touted in advance as key features of election-night broadcasts, the "electronic brains" did not replace "human brains" as primary sources of analysis on election night in 1952.

 This case study chronicles the circumstances under which a new technology was employed by a relatively new form of the news media.  On election night 1952, the computer was deployed not so much to revolutionize news reporting as to capture public attention.  It functioned in line with existing values and practices of election-night journalism.  In this important instance, therefore, the new technology's technical features were less a driving force for adoption than its usefulness as a wonder and as a symbol to enhance the prestige of its adopters.  This suggests that a new technology's capacity to provide both technical and symbolic social utility can be key to its chances for adoption by the news media.