Olivetti’s Programma 101 was the first computer in history. It embodied the company’s holistic approach to technical efficiency, ease of use and smart design.
The history of the Italian computer manufacturer Olivetti is that of a company combining innovation, technical efficiency, design and attention to the needs of employees. That's what in Italy is called "Italian excellence". Founded at the beginning of the twentieth century in the city of Ivrea (a small but ancient town below the Piedmontese Alps, just one hour north of Turin) by the restless and nonconformist genius of Camillo Olivetti, founder of Ing. C. Olivetti & C., Italy's first typewriter factory. The company has then grown under the lead of his son Adriano Olivetti who began his apprenticeship in 1924 as a worker, and the following year he made a trip to the United States, where he visited the most advanced factories of the time.
The human and professional commitment of the founder and his son Adriano, determined to combine technological progress and socialist ideals, did not stop even during the tough twenty years of fascism.
Adriano Olivetti was a visionary entrepreneur and a pioneer in information technology. In 1938, when he became president of the company succeeding his father, he devoted himself to modernising and renewing Olivetti, introducing new working methods, a different organisation of management functions and a development of the sales network in Italy and abroad.
In the following years the company developed several products combining aesthetic and functionality like the Lexikon 80 (1948), the Lettere 22 (1950) the Divisumma 24 (1956) that are included in the collection of the MoMA in New York and are considered the perfect incarnations of the "Made in Italy" concept.
Olivetti was a company of which we should take a leaf out regarding the way it valued its employees. Even before Google, Olivetti literally put its people first by offering them a very comfortable offices and building modern facilities. In fact, it did much more. Olivetti was a company that felt directly responsible for the urban layout and building landscape and which invested in helping employees solve the housing problem. Adriano Olivetti believed that the conditions and appearance of the workplaces as well as the place of residence have a big impact on the quality of social life and productive efficiency. Can you blame him? Already at the end of the 1920s a group of houses was built in an area not far from the offices. The village was called "Borgo Olivetti". The stylistic model was traditional: the houses had a vegetable garden to contribute to the food self-sufficiency of the families. There were also kindergartens and an articulated system of social services was created.
When having a father or mother who worked at Olivetti was a great fortune even for the children...
Between the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, Olivetti grew and expanded its interests to teleprinters, calculators and office equipment. At the beginning of the 1950s, the company also focused on electronics, letting the entire sector make great strides and beating off the competition with renowned American companies such as IBM and HP.
Adriano Olivetti was also a pioneer in information technology. In 1948 he launched the Divisumma 14, the world's first electromechanical calculator capable of performing all arithmetic operations and printing the result.
Together with the engineer Mario Tchou, a pioneer of computer science in Italy, in 1959 he introduced the Elea 9003, one of the first all-transistor calculators.
Olivetti played an important role in the birth of the PC, making the Programma 101, the first European personal computer in 1965 anticipating by years the concept of the personal computer as we know it today (at the time, there was no computer in the world that had such computing power concentrated in such a small size).
This programmable desktop calculator proved an immediate success. Also known as the P101 or the Perottina (after the chief engineer who designed it, Pier Giorgio Perotto), it eventually sold more than 40,000 units, primarily in the United States but also in Europe. NASA bought a number of P101s, which were used by engineers working on the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
Programma 101 was chosen by NASA for its reliability, speed, and programming capabilities. In fact, it was used to calculate the fuel consumption, trajectory and landing time of the lunar module. Since 1976, The 101 Program has been on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington as one of the symbols of space achievement.
In 2018, UNESCO declared Ivrea a World Heritage Site. Like the company itself, the town is part of a legacy that contributed to make Italian design seen as a reference: some machines are still part of the permanent collection of the world’s greatest museums such as the MoMA.
"Italy nearly had its own Silicon Valley, Olivetti was our Bill Gates"
Leaving aside the sudden death of both Adriano Olivetti and the engineer Mario Tchou (Olivetti's pioneer in computer science) which occurred in circumstances still to be clarified, the Olivetti story teaches us that a different approach to business is possible, that diverse leadership is feasible and that only great men can see their dreams coming true.
Today's companies have a lot to learn from Olivetti, especially in what concerns the respect the company had for its employees. Nowadays this degree of respect no longer exists in my opinion.