When Radio Times readers first encountered "the brain" in 1955, could they have imagined how powerful the "digital computing engine" would soon become – and how that would change election reporting for ever?

At a time when graphics were created by hand using quick-drying paint and propped up in front of the camera on easels, and while psephologists led by "Mister Election" David Butler punched numbers into their calculators and worked out the swing using slide rules, the BBC was carving out a place for computers in its election night plans. And the broadcaster was very, very excited about it. 

The first televised general election had taken place in 1950. In that year producers experimented with cameras in Trafalgar Square, and for the following year's election the "outside broadcast units" ventured as far as Birmingham, Salford and Fulham. But 1955 was when BBC election coverage began to take off. 

In that year, they boasted of "THIRTY-SEVEN cameras, sixteen more than we used during the Coronation". And, crucially, computing machines had arrived on the scene. 

An editorial explains: “Professor Maurice Kendall, who holds the Chair of Statistics in the University of London, will lead a team of statisticians who will study results as they come in and assess trends.

"They will make use of computing machines installed in Broadcasting House, and in addition they will have at their disposal, for the first time at an Election in this country, an electronic computer that is among the fastest in the world.

"The use of this intricate machine has involved much careful preparation under Professor Kendall’s supervision, and because it cannot be moved to London an OB operation has been planned in conjunction with the BBC’s Midland Region. Throughout Election Night the team in Broadcasting House will be in touch with their opposite numbers in charge of the ‘brain’."

Seeing as the machine was too big to move, broadcaster William Hartley was deployed to the "headquarters of the electronic computer" in Staffordshire to keep an eye on "the brain" and share its electronic thoughts with London. 

Those thoughts must have been insightful, because another brainy computer was on hand in 1959: "David Butler and his backroom team-mates will be assisted by one of the latest electronic computers which will provide the studio team with a complete analysis of the significance of each result within seconds."

"Complete analysis"? This perhaps overstates what early machines were capable of computing, as Butler patiently explained in a Radio Times editorial at the next general election in 1964.

"A British election, however, presents, in computer terms, a very simple problem," he wrote. "The election results programme must not, therefore, be seen as a great test of the studio computers. They will merely provide accurate information rather more quickly and more exhaustively than slide rules and adding machines.

"However, with subtle analysis, the fuller date form the computer will make it possible to give more exact forecasts rather earlier than ever before and at the same time to tell you what lies behind the figures.”

BBC-tv would be using the National Elliott 803, while BBC radio had access to the much larger IBM 7094

“Sometimes final answers may have to wait for weeks – or for ever," Butler wrote. "But many can be answered within minutes. Computers and experienced statisticians will be working for BBC-tv and Radio through the night. By the time each result is broadcast, the computers... will have worked out swing and the turnout. They will keep a running tally of all the votes cast and calculate up-to-date percentages for each party."

For the 1970 election, the BBC announced an upgrade to make things even speedier. Radio Times reported: “With a Baric system 4/50 computer in central London to ‘drive’ displays, full details of every result can be on your screen one-and-a-half seconds after the returning officer completes his announcement.

"When several results arrive at the same time, the computer will select the most interesting one to present first."

Clever! But that wasn't all. For the first time, graphics would be created in the elections studio – by computer. 

"Full voting details will be presented by a new electronic printer specially developed by the BBC’s Engineering Designs Department to be linked to the computer," Radio Times explained. "Known as ANCHOR… it produces the clearest characters of any device of its kind. Results will be coloured electronically according to which party wins.”

But as technology became more central, not everyone was quite keeping up. In 1974, editor Mike Townson completely delegated electoral analysis to computer whiz Graham Pyatt: "Graham’s the man who calls the race. We don’t understand the computer. He does. We’ll believe him, not it, if there’s a doubt."

Less than 30 years after "the brain" made its debut, there was already nostalgia for a simpler time. The BBC's David Wheeler traced this computer's development to its logical conclusion in a 1983 Radio Times opinion piece: "Sooner or later someone is going to decide that putting crosses on bits of paper, collecting these in tin boxes and at the end of the day rushing the boxes to a central location for the votes to be laboriously sorted out by hand is an outmoded way of deciding a General Election.

"Instead, voters will push buttons to register their choice in a computer. At 10.0pm the electronic polling stations will close. At 10.1pm results will be known in every constituency and the composition of the next Government will be declared.

"If and when that day comes we shall have lost a lot of the fun. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if we haven’t lost a bit of the fun already, what with computers able to predict with astonishing accuracy the outcome of the election on the basis of the first two or three results to be declared.”

That day has yet to come in this country. But now we do have graphics that whiz all over the place, and complex computer models and projections, and big screens and small screens and digital Swingometers. 

It's all a very long way from the days of "the brain" – but that's where it all began.

The 2017 general election takes place on 8th June, with polling stations open until 10pm