When in Ivrea they invented the first computers (and the spot of '65 heralded smart working)

When in Ivrea they invented the first computers (and the spot of ’65 heralded smart working)

from Dario Basile

Roberto Olivetti asked engineer Perotto to design an electronic machine with particular characteristics: small in size so that it could fit on a desk. And in the ad, a businessman works by the pool

In the Olivetti historical archive there is a photo from 1964 showing four men next to a strange prototype. That apparently insignificant snapshot actually marks the beginning of a revolution in our lives.

The engineers Pier Giorgio Perotto, Giovanni De Sandre (seated in the front row) and the technical expert Gastone Garziera (standing left) had almost completed the Olivetti Programma 101, the first personal computer in the world, and decided to capture that moment. But before we get to that photo, we need to take a step back.

The first computers were developed for war purposes during World War II. They were huge machines, expensive and used only by specialized technicians. The US government had sensed its strategic importance and overseas enormous resources were invested in that technology. In Italy too, Olivetti starts working on those big computers.

In 1955 in Ivrea the project of theElea 9003the first Italian electronic calculator, which four years later will be presented to President Gronchi. At Olivetti the development of electronics encounters great difficulties, the new technology requires large investments and economic returns are expected only in the long term. As if that weren’t enough, in February 1960 Adriano Olivetti suddenly died, somehow marking the end of an era.

The management of the company is taken over by his son Roberto. The following are complicated years, the economic situation requires the entry of new partners and a vast corporate reorganization. In 1964 the Olivetti Electronics Division, even under international political pressure, it was sold to General Electric. There is a project, begun in the spring of 1962, which is not passed on to new American buyers and which continues in a semi-clamorous way. the idea of ​​creating a new type of computer, barely bigger than a shoe box, which could be kept on a desk and to carry it along are three intrepid inventors. In Olivetti it was understood that mechanics had reached its peak and electronics could allow new market developments. Roberto Olivetti therefore asks engineer Perotto to design an electronic machine that should have had very specific characteristics.

Remember Gastone Garziera, one of the three protagonists of the photo: Roberto Olivetti had asked for an electronic calculator and Perotto thought that the machine had to be small in order to fit on a desk, a challenge that seemed impossible at the time. The second issue concerned costs, at that time the electronic components were expensive so they had to be reduced to the bone.

Then there was a third problem, certainly not simpler than the others. The big computers needed teams of technicians to work, the new computer was aimed at non-specialists, an instruction booklet had to be enough. The small group of inventors manage to solve one challenge after another. The problem of size is bypassed thanks to the new magnetostrictive memory, consisting of a coiled harmonic steel wire. Ease of use was guaranteed by magnetic cards which, once inserted, contained all the information needed to carry out a specific program.

Those three men were unaware that they had started a revolution. Once the machine is finished, the three go to their manager, Natale Capellaro, to present the definitive prototype. Remember Garziera: After the presentation Capellaro remained silent with his head bowed then said to Perotto: dear engineer, seeing this machine I understand that the era of mechanical calculation is over.

That little computer could be used for multiple uses, from school, to the office, to operating theaters. In a commercial of the 101 Program the arrival of smart working is predicted, we see a businessman working by the pool.

In October 1965 Program 101 is presented at the International Exhibition of Office Machines in New York and becomes the true protagonist of the exhibition, also winning the attention of the US press. Among the first buyers there was NASA which ordered over 40 and used them for calculating the lunar routes, which would have brought man to the moon with the Apollo 11 mission.

Competing companies try to run for cover by making similar products. A wild race had begun. Two years later, in 1967, Hewlett Packard will present the HP9100 on the market, a computer that will adopt some patented solutions from the P101, so much so that HP will have to pay Olivetti $ 900,000 in royalties. To compete in that new market, great resources and skills were needed that Olivetti no longer hadhaving sold the entire Electronics Division.

The three men in the photo had opened a path and on that track others have built the highway of the future.

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September 5, 2022 (change September 5, 2022 | 15:33)

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