Olivetti & the Italian Computer: What Could Have Been
one of the world's leading computer makers in the 1950s was an Italian typewriter manufacturer olivetti was founded in Northern Italy as a maker of fine mechanical typewriters but the company's Visionary leader Adriano olivetti fervently believed that its future laid in electronics he recruited a brilliant Chinese Italian from the United States to produce a world leading computer and they delivered for a brief time olivetti was capable of challenging IBM itself until tragedy struck in this video we're going to look at an Italian computer pioneer but first let me talk about the asianometry patreon Early Access members get to see new videos and selected references for those videos before the release of the public it helped support the videos and I appreciate every pledge and I recently added an annual subscription option too thanks and on with the show Mario 2 was born in 1924 in Rome one of three children his parents were Republic of China diplomats to Vatican City Italy in the 1920s is experiencing the rise of fascism the Mario and his siblings lived life in somewhat of a bubble away from the chaos and speaking Chinese at home Mario proved to be a promising student gifted with an analytical mind and a Proficiency in mathematics yet at the same time he had a talent for music and a passion for philosophy people who knew him remarked on his cultured and elegant heir over six feet tall Wicked smart and quite handsome Mario had many girlfriends and easily struck friendships with his classmates those friendships would play a big role in his future in computers in the 1930s Japan invaded the Republic of China starting the second sino-japanese war Italy's military alliance with Japan signed in 1940 with a tripartite Act made them Japan's Ally as a result the Republic of China closed its missions in Rome Mario's father Ian considered returning to China but decided to take up a new position so that his children might continue their education in Italy in 1942 Mario entered the engineering Institute at the LA Sapienza University however his father insists that Mario goes to United States rather than Europe for his secondary education so Mario wins a scholarship to Washington D.C he spends the majority of World War II in the United States graduating with a bachelor's in electrical engineering from Catholic University of America in 1947. in 1949 he earns a masters from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn now part of NYU times were hard in America back then for a han Chinese Mario study during the day and worked as an electrician at night after a brief stint has a TV parts consultant for a copyright law firm Mario becomes an associate professor at Columbia University earning about four thousand five hundred dollars a year very good money for the time but two Longs for his home in Italy in 1908 a man named Camilo olivetti founded the olivetti company in ivria a town in Northern Italy bore into a well-to-do family Camillo worked in London and toured the United States there he saw the new inventions being created by people like Edison and was inspired he started producing typewriters on his own his first breakout typewriter was the M1 no relation to the Apple chip the olivetti M1 distinguished itself because it was very well made and people could rapidly type on its Keys underrated benefit people love the design and craftsmanship of these olivetti typewriters Camillo used to brag that his M20 typewriter not only type faster than its competitors but that you can throw it out of a window without Dent it was nigh indestructible the company grew well in the 1920s Camillo's son Adriano joins the business and becomes general manager he institutes new work practices brought over from the United States which were successful by 1933 the company and its 870 employees produced nearly 25 000 typewriters a year the next year the company begins researching and producing mechanical calculator machines in 1940 olivetti introduces the Sama mc4s adding machine their first mechanical calculator then came the war the olivetes had Jewish ancestry Camilo passed away in 1943 and Adriano flees to Switzerland in 1944. he returns a few years after the end of the war business boomed in these post-war days the company grew its capital 10 times over from 1947 to 1951 on the back of strong export sales their products not only retained their incredible craftsmanship but were also sold by an aggressive Sales Force One French competitor complained the trouble with competing with olive Eddie is that if you throw two of their men out the door another one will be trying to climb into the window products like the Lexicon 80 typewriter are recognized as iconic designs worthy of a museum the Museum of Modern Art exhibited olivetti typewriters in 1952 saying in a brochure the olivetti company many critics agree is the leading Corporation in the Western World in the field of design for patronage and architecture product design and advertising it would indeed be difficult to name a second in some ways olivetti was like the apple of its day iconic design well-made products and with a Visionary leader at the helm that Visionary Adriano olivetti was racing ahead towards an electronic future in 1949 olivetti struck a retail sales partnership with the french punch Card Maker bull Bowl had just entered the computer business giving Adriano and olivetti a window into this technology a year later in 1950 all of Eddie tried to start an Italian computer project with Italy's inacc Computing Center but the project did not move forward due to a lack of government funding this persistent pursuit of computers must have confused many people but Adriana was convinced that the future was in electronics he foresaw the electronic data processor to be at the heart of the quote Office of the future end quote and wanted to make it in 1952 olivetti sets up a lab a New Canaan Connecticut to monitor new computer Technologies Adriana wants a similar lab in Italy so he travels to New York City to recruit talents to staff it there are a few stories floating around about how Adriano olivetti and Mario 2 first met I think one such story suggests that they were introduced by the famous physicist Enrico Fermi but this is what I think is most plausible Mario went to school with a man named guliamo negre negri himself a notable jurist in his career worked in olivetti's foreign trade office at the time so when Adriano sought a talented engineer for his lab negri put him in touch with Mario Mario recalled in a later interview Adriano being impressed by the Chinese Italian's human qualities as well as his obvious expertise in electronic computers by the end of the job interview the 30 year old Mario 2 decides that he will return to Italy to run the olivetti electronic research laboratory and puts in his leave of absence from Colombia now let us travel across the Atlantic to Italy sometime in the spring of 1954 the University of Pisa received a large amount of money from several local governments to help build a particle accelerator designed by their physics Institute unfortunately the authorities eventually built that syncotron in a town closer to Rome this toppled egg onto the faces of the Pisa physicists who suddenly needed to come up with something else to do with this money to raise the area's prestige after a long discussion in the summer of 1954 they proposed to use some of the allocated funds worth about 2 million euro today to build an electronic computer for scientific research Italy had recently imported two of its first computers Italy's inacc had an English Ferrante Mark 1 computer named finac and Milan's Polytechnic numerical computation Center bought a crc-102a for scientific research and educating people in computer science like I said those two computers came from other countries this proposed computer would be the first such to be designed and built in Italy however local politicians mayor of Pisa Ronaldo pagni and provincial president Antonio maccarone leaned towards skepticism synchrotrons and other such things were related to atomic energy were hot at the time who cares about a computer in response the Pisa physicists recruited the Towering Enrico Fermi the Nobel prize-winning Italian physicist he is well known for his role in designing the first nuclear reactor and the atomic bomb Fermi wrote a letter to the Consortium in charge endorsing the computer option has quote by far the best choice end quote red and October 4th meeting the letter swayed the balance and everyone in Pisa largely fell onto the idea of building a computer the project sought a private partner and olivetti leapt at the chance in March 1955 Mario Drew Drew up a four-year plan for the cep Pisa electronic computer project a year later in May 1956 the two sealed a formal agreement the university would provide free access to any patents and already pledged 10 million layer in annual expenditure and to loan staff for the project the cep was eventually delivered in 1961 after a year and a half delay it operated for about seven years and worked well but by then the vacuum tube based computer was already far behind AS Global competitors we will remember it more for kickstarting Elia in the spring of 1955 Mario recruits a team of physicists and Engineers to join his laboratory he specifically wanted younger people saying new things are only done with young people Only the Young throw themselves into it with enthusiasm and collaborate in harmony without ego and without the obstacles derived from a conventional mindset of course he himself was only about 30 at the time over hundreds of job interviews Mario focused Less on candidates academic knowledge and more on their ideas and real world projects the first hire Lucio Borriello remembers I was hired and arrived in Pisa at the end of October 1955. the first to arrive of the newly forming group Mario Chu told me you will take care of mass storage and I internally wondered what that was they were all Pioneers in early 1956 the laboratory was moved to a mansion in barbaracina a residential suburb of Pisa one technician arriving there recalls climbing to the first floor of the villa and looking out to the balcony You Could See Fields and trees as far as the eye could see in this Pleasant place the thoroughbreds of dormello ogiata came to Winter in those years it wasn't unusual to see the great ribot pass by in case you're wondering like I was Ripple was a famous thoroughbred racehorse one of the most famous of the 20th century continuing on Mario 2's office was furnished almost spartanly with furniture produced by olivetti I remember perfectly the rich library with volumes all strictly in English there the team self-educated themselves on this new Dynamic field after about a year they eventually produced their first computer prototype machine zero this computer was based on a Von Neumann machine and thus had a calculations unit a control unit to manage calculation operations and a central memory unit to store both programs and program data machine zero was later renamed to the Elia 9001 Elia stands for I'm not going to try to pronounce that electronic automatic computer this first Elia 9001 was made from wires and vacuum tubes the tubes were the size of eggs and ran extremely hot the thing functioned but barely so one spring Day in 1957 Adriano olivetti his son Roberto and other company Executives arrived at the factory to look at machine zero people recall Mario seemed nervous and a little worried for the first time in a while Mario showed the guests the new computer and how it worked despite its shortcomings Adriano was sufficiently impressed to give the green light for the next step in the computer project the team plunged into that next big step transistors transistors were smaller used less power and did not have the same heat issues this second prototype the 9002 was so successful that Mario in his lab of 30 convinces Adriano to transistorize the whole thing one of the works major issues had been the lack of solid-state semiconductors later Elia computers would use over one hundred thousand transistors and diodes Adriano olivetti his son Roberto and Mario Zhu are all convinced that transistors and other solid-state Electronics were key to unlocking Technology's future but they didn't want to import them from the United States or West Germany or the Netherlands they wanted to make them right here in Italy so in 1957 Adriano and his friend virgilo floriani founder of the Italian telecommunications company teletra partnered 50 50 to found a company called societa general semiconductory or SGS SGS sets up a small lab in Milan a year later a factory in nearby agrat to take advantage of Milan's big industrial base with a design license from General Electric they start producing their first germanium diodes in 1959.
a year later though they would reach out to Fairchild semiconductor and license their planar process for producing transistors dumping germanium for silicon one of the many talented Engineers to pass through sgs's stores is Federico fejin then just 19 years old he later joined Intel and helped design the Intel 4004 the first commercial microprocessor over the next few decades the company struck the right balance of selective technology transfer through Partnerships and Indigenous research to carve out a good niche in linear circuits SGS continues to survive to this day in 1987 they merged with the French semiconductor maker Thompson to create SGS Thompson they later changed that name to St microelectronics today there are one of Europe's leading semiconductor makers a perhaps surprising consequence of all of Eddie's work the fully transistorized 9003 computer is completed in 1959 and it is a beauty powered by sgs's germanium transistors the 9003 was one of the first fully transistorized stored program computers released shortly after IBM 7070 models in 1958. you can input information into the computer using a keyboard paper tape reader and punch card reader it can output information to you with a card punch Magnetic Tape or a printer it was capable of Performing 5000 Edition operations per second which kinda sounds like a lot to compare today's Nvidia h100 AI accelerator can do up to four quadrillion floating Point operations each second that also sounds like a lot notably the computer used magnetic core memory to store and run programs this system also known as ferrite core memory is made up of sets of tiny magnetic Rings strung up with fine copper wires and grids each of these rings can carry a magnetic field in a clockwise or counterclockwise Direction This Maps out to either a one or a zero this memory could be expanded from twenty thousand characters to 160 000. workers on the ground floor of the two-floor olivetti production factory in Milan wove these core memories together by hand this Factory would eventually employ a thousand people magnetic core memory is a predecessor to the memory chips of today and it gave the 9003 the power to run up to three programs at the same time multi-programming if it's work were to be interrupted then it could run an automatic program to handle things the computer's industrial design was crafted by the Italian architect itsas the division's head designer such SAS faced a compelling problem he needed to create a design for an entirely new category of machines with no real precedence he knew that the 9003 would be incredibly expensive about 9.2 million euro today as a result the machine needed to look good for its core buyers of universities Banks and government agencies like Adriano sotzas had a utopian vision for computer technology they envisioned a class of Bourgeois intellectuals working together in an enlightened capitalist Society in such a world a computer would not be a machine like in a factory but rather Furniture users at work should be able to casually move around their rooms and be surrounded by their computer without discomfort so success designed a modular flexible system made up of metal framed cabinets much like Furniture the cabinets were given colored Stripes per their function sotas wrote the computer is like a bull who fights in the arena and who has ribbons because you decorate bowls when they fight the computer for me is a bull it is like a powerful monster you can easily reconfigure the setup in order to give it this flexibility the Elia 9003 had a red colored busway of wires and power cables suspended Above This was a big differentiator from the IBM computers which buried those under the floor the design also considered ergonomic and human factors for instance the computer cabinets were about 150 centimeters tall this was because computers were very noisy back then so technicians needed to be able to make eye contact with one another this wonderful design won such the prestigious Golden Compass industrial design prize in 1959.
overall this time Mario 2 managed the lab with Incredible skill the Chinese Italian was a natural leader he ran things with absolute Authority but definitely employed that Authority in such a way to make people of all sorts and backgrounds buy-in to his mission it was not a micromanager rather he assigned broad tasks and goals to his teams and let them go about it without making a big deal of how they did it and like any great manager he shielded his guys from interference from authorities back at headquarters in Israel Mario's Family upbringing and diplomacy endowed him with the right tools to soothe big egos call nerves and tensions and give everyone their own do despite the high pressure and intense work they got along with each other the first 9003 was installed in November 1959 in the headquarters of a Milan textile Factory called marzotto the second was installed at one of the world's oldest surviving Banks the Monte Dei pashi di Sienna this computer was eventually preserved and can still be seen today the computer received a fair amount of publicity their computer Factory was featured in the popular magazine epocha the oliveti film office produced a documentary called Elia class 9000 which discussed how computers can help industry over 40 9003s were produced for customers eventually taking 30 percent of the Italian computer Market in the early 1960s customers included Banks Automotive clubs and ini the oil company then in April 1961 olivetti launched a cheaper version of the 9003 the Elia 6001 from 1961 to 1965 the 6001 would sell about 100 units to universities and small businesses it became a standard tool set for University programming centers despite the success Elia suffered many product challenges first and foremost was the software from the very start elia's development heavily focused on its Hardware aspects this sort of makes sense all of Eddie began with typewriters and Hardware for this reason the Elia 9003 development team gave insufficient resources to the software which caused many problems later on the small software team spent most of their time studying high-level languages completely neglecting application software this was left to another team at olivetti which scrambled to produce software for whatever the customer needed as a result the Innovative multi-programming feature I mentioned earlier was never used in practice Elia also suffered a cash issue following IBM's practices these computers were not sold but rather rented to customers it should be fine in the long term but in the short term Revenue fell far short of cost a cash timing mismatch this problem was worsened by the fact that all of Eddie's computer efforts were entirely self-funded without any financial support from the national government in an interview Mario said currently we can consider ourselves at the same level as our competitors from a qualitative point of view however others received enormous aid from the state the United States allocates large sums for electronic research especially for military purposes Great Britain also spends millions of pounds olivetti's effort is relatively notable but others have a more secure future than ours being helped by the state this issue becomes far more serious for all of Eddie's computer division as the company began to run into difficulty in October 1959 Adriano purchases one of his American competitors Underwood Underwood is a typewriter manufacturer founded back in 1895 that had once been an innovator there were the original inspiration for Camilo olivetti when he visited the United States in the 1920s but the company had fallen into distress they spent years paying a high dividend rather than investing in their business leaving their equipment decades out of date they allowed IBM and Remington ran to LeapFrog them in the electronic typewriter Market leaving them only with an overpriced product in a declining manual typewriter Market unable to find an American acquirer they finally took all of Eddie's offer seeing it as Mana from heaven with this purchase Adriana wanted to use Underwood's massive commercial Network to tap the American Market Olive Eddie America in an Underwood combined would gross over 90 million dollars in 1959 revenues making it a major player in the market and all of Eddie's domestic Market was losing Terror protections due to the forthcoming European Community taking over the American Underwood Factory would give greater access to United States his management team examined the books and were very worried but Adriano believed he can turn them around olivetti eventually spent 92 million dollars nearly a billion dollars today to purchase 69 percent of the company sadly Adriano never made good on his pledge to turn Underwood around on February 27 1960 just a few months after the Underwood takeover he died of an apparent heart attack in a train in Switzerland he was 58 years old his death derailed the work of integrating Underwood into olivetti he was overseeing the stock sale to fund the acquisition and was making plans for slimming down Underwood's 18 product lines to just three a year later in November 1961 tragedy struck again Mario 2 was killed in a car crash he had set out for a software development meeting that morning in Israel a two-hour drive away he was riding in a Buick Skylark with his company driver he had apparently liked that car a lot jokingly telling designer satsas you see now I am no longer afraid to go from Milan to ivria the fastest way there is the Milan Turin back then a three-lane highway with a shared passing Lane this Lane was called suicide alley for its frequent head-on collisions one point where you have to go over a Railway Bridge is particularly dangerous because there is little visibility an 87 year old driver was driving a two to three ton truck and saw Drew's Buick coming at him after overtaking another truck the truck hit the Buick head on killing both two and his driver Mario 2 was then 37 years old and left behind a wife and two children their deaths came at the worst possible time Olive Eddie in the early 1960s was a heavily leveraged company in desperate need of stable leadership their Bank debts grew almost five times over from 7.6 million in 1958 to 32.5 million at the end of 1963. many of these debts were held by American Banks this debt is almost entirely due to the disastrous Underwood acquisition the subsidiary's net worth by then was negative 8.6 million dollars at the same time the company's fortunes were hit by both a broad economic downturn and a competitive upsurge from Japanese exports warehouses filled with unsold products olivetti's publicly traded shares fell from 11 000 Lira at the start of 1962 to about 1500 lira in March 1964. the company fell into financial difficulty and had to be rescued as a result the olivetti family lost control over their company to an intervention group consisting of Fiat Pirelli and a few Banks the group told top management and the olivetti family that the company had to either sell Underwood or the electronics division management managed to convince the banks that they could turn Underwood around by closing sales branches and replacing them with a network of sales agents this left the electronics division with the Italian government uninterested in a bailout all of Eddie sold a 75 share in their computer division to General Electric in September 1964. this sale came a month after GE bought the French computer Maker bull the division had other products in the works at the time of the sale this included the 9004 successor to the 9003 and the Elia 4001 a medium-sized calculator most of these left to go to General Electric but a small team stayed with the original olivetti company Pierre gyrogo peroto had worked with Mario 2 on the first Ilia project he did not want to move to GE so Roberto olivetti arranged to keep him and a few others around peroto eventually started working on a project that came to him in a dream I dreamed of a friendly machine to which to delegate the operations producing mental fatigue and error a machine that could docily learn and then perform that stored data and simple intuitive instructions whose use was within everyone's capacity cheap and the same size as other office devices which people already used sounds like a PC to me using newly available silicon transistors cheaper delay line memory technology and an Innovative magnetic program card they produced the programa 101.
the p101 was a programmable desktop calculator kind of like the Wong 300 from Wong labs it can do the four big math functions square roots and more you can upload a program card and have it execute operations on data in seconds introduced in October 1965 a year before the Wong 300 it sold over 44 000 units in the United States NASA bought 10 of them and used them for the Apollo 11 mission unfortunately all of Eddie's top management was busy dealing with the labor impact of the mechanical businesses Decline and could not easily pivot to this new business of programmable calculators it took another three years for olivetti to release a successor to the p101 the logos 328 calculator in 1968. new products took up to five years to develop and release the boom faded and olivetti hasn't been relevant since I've read some conspiracy mongering about olivetti's dual tragedies that Adrian olivetti and Mario 2 were murdered by the Americans to protect IBM's Computing Monopoly there is a book called The Mysterious Affair at olivetti talking about it it is hard for me to buy into this Theory I don't doubt that the CIA can do evil conspiratorial things but it is not uncommon for a 58 year old man to die from a heart attack and two's car accident did happen on a dangerous section of Highway sometimes a spade is just a spade pinning all of Eddie's fall on some nefarious American conspiracy cheapens the lessons from their decline the financial distress and debt from the Underwood acquisition are more than sufficient explanations if Adriano so believed in electronics being the future why did he spend so much more money on a failing mechanical typewriter manufacturer perhaps he was dazzled by nostalgia and success in the electronics division was far from guaranteed even if both men lived alevedi's software deficiencies were quite serious and the Europe of the 1960s was far from ready to adopt Computing let alone personal computing the one real question that I Ponder is why the Italian national government never lifted a finger to save their National Champion computer maker at least France launched planned calcul after GE took over their national champion bull what couldn't the Italian government see in the potential of funding their own IBM it is a real Miss and it leads one to wonder what could have been for all of Eddie and the Italian computer alright everyone that's it for tonight thanks for watching subscribe to the Channel Sign up for the newsletter and I'll see you guys next time