Camillo Olivetti

Camillo Olivetti was born on August 13, 1868 in Ivrea, a small town in northwest Italy, about 50 km north of Turin. His Jewish, middle-class parents sent him to the Technical School for Engineers in Turin – today: Polytechnic University of Turin – where he graduated with a diploma in engineering. Following his graduation he went to the United States where he became assistant in electrical engineering at the University of Stanford. This enabled him to attend a few courses in physics and engineering at Stanford.

The first Italian typewriter company

Having seen the first typewriters in the United States, after his return to Italy Olivetti decided to start a local manufacturing plant for typewriters and on October 29, 1908, he founded Ing. C. Olivetti & C., S.p.A. – the first Italian typewriter factory. The company was based in Ivrea, his place of birth, and started with 20 employees.

Ivrea factory in the background            “double black” variety

Olivetti would become a famous make worldwide, well-known for its technical excellence, modern designs and corporate and social welfare policies. The first typewriter Camillo designed – the Olivetti M1 – was exhibited in 1911 at the Turin Universal Exposition. Its design had been carefully considered and was aesthetically pleasing. Olivetti’s attention to the design would soon become a corporate philosophy and involved not only the exterior of his machines but it was extended to include advertising, posters and even the company’s buildings. Many famous designers and architects have been appointed in the company’s history to effectuate its progressive image, be it in its products, its buildings, its office interior or its publicity campaigns. In 1952 the New York Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition “Olivetti: Design in Industry” where several of its products were showcased because of their striking design. Even today, several Olivetti machines are still part of its permanent collection.

Initial production of typewriters was about 1,000 machines yearly; this had increased to 13,000 typewriters by 1929. In 1933 Olivetti’s son, Adriano Olivetti, who was born in 1901, took over as general manager and became the leading man of the company, becoming its chairman in 1938. Adriano would take the company to new heights – he built not only houses for the employees, but also changed the face of Ivrea by building schools, houses, roads and recreational facilities. Olivetti’s production line was expended from the initial typewriters to include adding machines, teleprinters and office furniture. In the early thirties the company extended its market to other countries in Europe and South America and it soon became one of the most successful commercial enterprises in Italy.

Olivetti typewriter on Belgian Postal Cheque envelope (1937)

Camillo Olivetti passed away on December 4, 1943, in the nearby town of Biella. His funeral was attended by many of his workers who defied the local government which did not want to pay too much attention to the Jewish entrepreneur. He was buried in Biella’s Jewish cemetery. Following Camillo’s death, life in fascist Italy became more and more difficult for son Adriano and shortly after the funeral he had to flee the country, only to return after the war.

1940s typewriter on Belgian Publibel #505 (issued from 1941-08-01 until 1945-09-15)

1950 Olivetti typewriter in metermark on Olivetti correspondence

From typewriter to computer

Olivetti’s first adding machine was the MC 4S Summa which was introduced in 1940. This was followed one year later by the MC 4M Multisumma. Olivetti was a great proponent of the small, elegant ten-key keyboard and most of its calculators and adding machines showed this feature.

In 1948 Oliveti launched the Divisumma electric calculator. In 1959 it entered the U.S. market by acquiring the American typewriter company Underwood. This was followed a few years later by the acquisition of the calculator division of Smith Corona Marchant. Like many other companies involved in the manufacturing of high-precision instruments, Olivetti added adding machines and calculators to its production line. Initially these machines would be mechanical and hand-cranked, but later models would be electric motor driven and electronics inside. These steps were not much different from other companies manufacturing high-precision instruments which tried to first add calculating machines to their repertoire, followed later by the production of computers – a few were successful, many failed – like Singer (sewing machines), Remington (typewriters, guns), Walther (guns), Hollerith (tabulating equipment), Philips (light bulbs, radios), NCR (cash registers), Siemens (electrical goods), General Electric (electricity) and others.

The Summa 15, designed in 1949 by Marcello Nizolli, was a mechanical hand-cranked 10-key desktop adding machine. It weighed 7.6 kg.

Olivetti’s Elea 9003 computer

In 1959 Olivetti launched Italy’s first electronic computer, the Elea 9003 (Elea from Elaboratore Elettronico Automatico). It had a ferrite core memory varying from 20K to 160K and had a processing speed of 100 KHz. One character was represented in six bits plus one parity bit. The Elea was housed in large cabinet-size boxes and required a large air-conditioned room. It was one of the first fully transistorized commercial computers and about 40 were sold until 1964 when Olivetti sold its electronics division to General Electric.

Scaling down to the Personal Computer

Although Olivetti had abandoned the mainframe market, it continued to use electronics for its calculators. In 1965 it produced the innovative Programma 101, considered by some to be one of the first personal computers. The Programma 101 was a desktop programmable calculator using Neumann’s stored program principle. It had 240 bytes of memory and used magnetic cards as removable storage medium. Like most Olivetti adding machines and calculators, the Programma 101 had a built-in printer – Olivetti believed that a print facility for its machines was essential for its commercial success. Printing was done at a speed of 30 characters per second on a 9cm paper roll. The use of magnetic cards, which could store two programs, was quite advanced technology and resulted in $900,000 royalty payments from HP alone. The aluminum casing was designed by Mario Bellini and resulted in the considerable weight of 35 kg. One reason for being called a Personal Computer was its attractive price – it retailed for only $3,200, about one-tenth of other computers – which made it affordable to the smaller companies as well. The Programma 101 was highly successful and about 40,000 were sold.

Olivetti typewriter advertising in 1973 Papua New Guinea booklet inside cover.
Notice the punched paper tape around each block of four stamps.

The Olivetti M24 Personal Computer

In 1982 Olivetti introduced its first modern Personal Computer, the Olivetti M20. This was followed in 1984 by the M24, the first fully IBM-compatible PC. The M24 used an 8086 processor with a processing speed of 8 MHz making it faster than the IBM PC’s 8088 processor at 4.7 MHz. It used the DOS 2.1 operating system and had a memory of 128K, upgradable to 640K. It came standard with a green monochrome screen although a color screen was also available. It had one or two floppy 5.25” disk drives with an optional 10Mb hard disk. Since the M24 was both faster and cheaper than the IBM PC, the M24 became highly successful in Europe and the United States.

The later years

Olivetti’s investment in electronics had taken its toll. It resulted in serious financial problems for the company by the end of the eighties. Despite the relative success of the M24, its PC business resulted in serious losses and nearly bankrupted the company. In 1997 Olivetti sold its PC business to a British group.

In 1999 Bell S.A. acquired a controlling stake in Olivetti but sold this in 2001 to a group including Pirelli and Benetton. In 2003 the company became part of Telecom Italia and continued to operate under the name Olivetti Tecnost. It still sells printers, faxes and other office machines.

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Italy has issued two stamps to honor the famous Olivetti name. In 1986 one of the Export Industries’ stamps showed the Olivetti M24 Personal Computer. In 2008 a stamp was issued to commemorate the centenary of the first Olivetti factory. The stamp shows an Olivetti typewriter with the first Olivetti factory in Ivrea in the background. It is interesting to note that Olivetti made use of a large variety of postal items to promote its products worldwide as can be seen from the various illustrations used in this monograph.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2009

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