Constellation Adriano Olivetti


Adriano Olivetti (1901-1960)

The word ‘utopia’ is commonly used by journalists and historians when describing Adriano Olivetti’s management of the company he inherited from his father. Indeed, Olivetti managed to turn a small typewriter manufacturer into an industry leading company in the electronics sector. He also managed to do so while also taking care of his workers’ wellbeing, in the conviction that a factory must generate wealth not only for its shareholders, but for the entire community. Thus, the Olivetti Social Service Centre, which provided nursery services, libraries, cafeterias, hospitals, holiday retreats for its employees, became justifiably famous and celebrated. Olivetti believed that technology should serve the needs of the people, and this belief formed the basis of the company’s corporate culture and design philosophy. To accomplish this, he surrounded himself with writers, painters, designers, architects, philosophers, who were meant for his intellectual entertainment, but also actively contributed to the collaboration between arts and technology. To be sure, the reality of Olivetti was less idyllic than it might have appeared: factory work was still hard and alienating, despite the holiday homes and the libraries, and the company, notwithstanding its progressive culture, still sought to generate profit. Yet, Adriano Olivetti left a lasting mark on Italian computer culture and his early demise in 1960, which abruptly ended the trajectory of a company that some believe could have been the Italian equivalent to Apple, added to the personal mythology. Undoubtedly, Adriano Olivetti managed to create the conditions to establish a special synergy, never again replicated, between Italian artists and technicians. This was accomplished thanks to the technical and financial support provided to artists experimenting with computers, to the creation of venues and events fostering the collaboration between artists, designer, and programmers, and by involving writers in the company’s management. Speaking of ‘Olivetti’s utopia’ is not too much of an exaggeration after all.

Olivetti: a company made of writers

Many of the most accomplished Italian authors of the second half the 20th century worked for the Olivetti company in different capacities. Leonardo Sinisgalli, Giovanni Giudici, and Elio Vittorini in advertising, Paolo Volponi in social services, Ottieri Ottieri in personnel management, Geno Pampaloni as director of cultural events: all actively shaped the company’s culture. For instance, it was the poet Elio Vittorini who, while working in the advertising aepartment, chose the name Elea 9001, or Macchina Zero, for Olivetti’s mainframe computer, as a reference to the Ancient Greek philosophical school of Elea. These writers were not side collaborators, but powerful managers: a running joke in the company was that the acronym Spa (Società per azioni – Join stock company), as in Olivetti Spa, actually meant “Se Pampaloni acconsente” (“If Pampaloni allows”). Their position of power did not prevent them from criticising the company: Ottiero Ottieri and Paolo Volponi wrote novels about workers’ alienating conditions clearly referring to the Olivetti factory. To them, narrating technological progress meant, first and foremost, challenging its principles.

Paolo Volponi and Steve Job’s predecessor

In 1956, Paolo Volponi, a young writer with two collections of poetry already published, was hired by Adriano Olivetti to work as the company’s Director of Social Services. This was a transformative experience: years later, Volponi said that his two greatest teachers had been the writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and Adriano Olivetti. Volponi’s novels dealing with factory work are quite popular. Less known, instead, is the author’s interest for computer science that he developed while working for Olivetti in the years when the company was building the first Italian-made mainframe computer (Elea 9003), and the world first desktop computer (Programma 101). In 1965, Volponi wrote a short story, initially intended as subject for a film, that seems to predict Steve Jobs’s future: a genius computer programmer, Annibale Rama, sick of working for a big and short-sighted company, starts a pioneering project working from his garage. The result is a smart computer useful to everyone, not just to big corporations, which would change people’s life forever.

Planning the moon landing with Programma 101

Olivetti’s ground-breaking research in the field of electronics was interrupted by two tragic losses, that of Adriano Olivetti in 1960, at the age of 59, and that of the head computer engineer Mario Tchou in 1961, at the age of 38, in a tragic car accident. This called restructuring, and Olivetti’s research lab dealing with computers and electronics was sold to General Electrics in 1963. However, a team of young and ambitious programmers, led by the engineer Pier Giorgio Perotto, secretly kept working in the Olivetti lab on a pioneering project. This was Olivetti Programma 101, which is thought by many to have been the world’s first desktop computer. Presented at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and commercially released the following year, Programma 101 was the first human-centred computer ever made: at a time when this kind of technology generally took up an entire room, a machine slightly bigger than a typewriter was indeed a revolution. As a testament to its success, NASA purchased ten Programma 101, which were also used to plan the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Sinisgalli, a new Leonardo for the 20th century

An admirer of Leonardo Da Vinci, Leonardo Sinisgalli, too, was a man of many talents. After graduating in mathematics and engineering at the University of Rome, he declined an invitation to collaborate with Enrico Fermi, who went on to create the world’s first nuclear reactor, for which he received the Nobel prize for Physics. “I could have been among the young men who paved the way to the ‘atomic age’, instead I decided to follow painters and poets”, Sinisgalli reminisced. This choice, however, did not mean he suppressed his scientist self: on the contrary, he became a bridge between the two cultures. He worked as an Art Director for a number of Italian companies (such as Olivetti, Pirelli, Alfa Romeo, and Eni), and he founded and directed many important corporate magazines and publications, such as Civiltà delle machine (1953-79). Fascinated by robots, he did not see them as a threat to humankind, but rather as the natural product of intellectual curiosity. After all, he explained “people make machines like birds make eggs, oysters make pearls, snails make shells.”

The (cybernetic) Creation of Adam

In 1956, Leonardo Sinisgalli convinced Italy’s state-owned mechanical engineering company Finmeccanica to fund an ambitious project by cybernetician Silvio Ceccato. Ceccato’s goal was to be build a “mechanical brain”, meant to meant to provide a practical demonstration of how the human mind functions when formulating sentences. Indeed, Ceccato’s machine could formulate three philosophical sentences: René Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum”, Gianbattista Vico’s “Verum et factum convertuntur”, and Hegel’s “Das Für-sich-sein im Anderssein ist der Prozess” Sinisgalli supported and promoted the project and even came up with a name for the machine, Adamo II, thereby making Ceccato a godly figure who gave life to his mechanic creature. Adamo II was presented in Milan at an important fair dedicated to automation. It amazed many, including then President of the Republic Giovanni Gronchi. The Catholic church, instead, considered the project to be blasphemous. Thus, when Adamo II disappeared while being transported to Rome by train, many blamed the Vatican. Ceccato, instead, believed the machine had simply been sold for scraps.

Like a metaphysical frozen lake: ELEA 9003

When, in 1956, Olivetti decided to build the first Italian mainframe computer, what a computer was supposed to look like was still a matter up for debate. The company, internationally praised for its attention to design, hired the young Ettore Sottsass and entrusted him with shaping the external shell of the computers belonging to the Elea 9000 series. Sottsass, who later became one of the world’s most accomplished industrial designers, wanted the machine to communicate a sense of powerful impenetrability, and metaphysical distance. As if it belonged to a sci-fi movie, Sottsass wanted Elea 9000 to look like a “frozen lake”—sleek and translucent. On the other hand, Sottsass also wanted his design to facilitate collaborative work. Therefore, unlike other mainframe computers, Elea 9000 was divided into multiple modules, only 1.5 metre tall, so as to allow people working on it to see each other from above the machine and to use the space between the blocks as corridors to reach one another. With Elea 9002, Sottsass won the prestigious Compasso d’oro industrial design award.

Mario Tchou and the Italian way to computing

In 1954 a professor of the Department of Electronic Engineering of Columbia University in New York moved to Barbaricina, a Tuscan village near Pisa, to head one of the first Italian research laboratories in computer science. The man was the Chinese-Italian Mario Tchou, the lab was Olivetti’s Divisione Elettronica. Tchou, the son of Yin Tchou, China’s ambassador to the Vatican, was born and raised in Rome. He moved to the US to pursue a degree in Electronic Engineering and soon embarked on a brilliant academic career. Adriano Olivetti spotted his talent and convinced him to return to Italy. There, Tchou supervised the development of the mainframe computer Elea 9000, and trained the very first generation of computer scientists in Italy. Tragically, Tchou died in a car accident in 1961, at only 38. A few months earlier, Adriano Olivetti had also died prematurely. Their deaths meant the end of Olivetti’s leadership in computer technology. Many believed that Tchou and Olivetti were killed by the CIA. According to this conspiracy theory, American secret services wanted to stop Olivetti’s historically confirmed project of developing commercial relations with communist China to export their products there, having Tchou acting as a cultural mediator.

Electronic music in the factory

In 1967, 20.000 Olivetti loyal customers all over the world received a record, meant as a Christmas present, containing the recording of Paganini’s fifth caprice for solo violin. What made the record special, however, was that a computer, and not a musician, played the music. Behind the project was the Italian composer Pietro Grossi. A classically trained cellist, Grossi turned to electronic music in the 1950s, and then to computer music in the 1960s. In 1963, he founded the Studio di Fonologia Musicale (S 2F M) in Florence, dedicated to electronic music, and in 1965 he offered the very first course of electronic music in Italy, at the Florence Conservatory. Before being invited by Olivetti to use the company’s equipment for his project, Grossi did some preliminary studies. He visited many banks in the hope they had a computer he could “listen to” and was finally rewarded in Siena, where he found an Elea 9003, the sounds of which pleased him very much. After Paganini’s caprice, Grossi continued to work on computer music and wrote a program that allowed him to notate 1200 traditional pieces, from Bach to Satie.

Le Corbusier’s project for Olivetti

Olivetti was known for its design and for employing the world’s best architects for its projects. A big name who almost made it to the list is Le Corbusier, who was tasked with designing the new Olivetti Electronic Centre, just outside Milan. The Swiss architect and the Italian entrepreneur shared the same vision for a human-centred technological progress. About the Olivetti Electronic Centre Le Corbusier wrote: “Vast construction for 4.000 employees using these immense calculating machines […] miraculous and able to answer to the questions that modern science suggests. Here the “simple man” (like myself) feels like a poor little man. But he feels that at both ends of this adventure, there is the implacable human presence: the person who asks the question and the one who receives the answer.” Le Corbusier worked on the project between 1961 and 1962, after Adriano Olivetti’s death, thus in a moment of crisis for the company. In 1963, when the Olivetti Electronics department was sold to General Electrics, the project for the Centre was abandoned. Le Corbusier died two years later.

%d bloggers like this: