The Italian Computer: Olivetti’s ELEA 9003 Was a Study in Elegant, Ergonomic Design

In 1959, Olivetti introduced one of the first transistorized mainframes and started its own transistor company

11 min read
illustration of Adriano Olivetti and Mario Tchou.
Digital Future: In the 1950s, Adriano Olivetti (left), the head of Italy’s Olivetti Co., decided that computers were the company’s future, and he hired Mario Tchou (right), a brilliant electrical engineer, to oversee what became the ELEA 9003.
Illustration: Ciaj Rocchi and Matteo Demonte (courtesy of La Lettura/Il Corriere della Sera)

“I have made my decision: We are going to scrap the first version of our computer, and we will start again from scratch." It's the autumn of 1957, and Mario Tchou, a brilliant young Chinese-Italian electrical engineer, is speaking to his team at the Olivetti Electronics Research Laboratory. Housed in a repurposed villa on the outskirts of Pisa, not far from the Leaning Tower, the lab is filled with vacuum tubes, wires, cables, and other electronics, a startling contrast to the tasteful decorations of the palatial rooms.

On any weekday, some 20 or so physicists, technicians, and engineers would be hard at work there, designing, developing, soldering, conferring. In less than two years—half the time they'd been allotted—they've completed their first prototype mainframe, called Macchina Zero (Zero Machine). No other company in Italy has ever built a computer before. They're understandably proud.

Today, though, is a Sunday, and Tchou has called in his boss and three members of the team to discuss a bold decision, one that he hopes will place Olivetti ahead of every other computer maker in the world.

Macchina Zero, he points out, uses vacuum tubes. And tubes, he says, will soon become obsolete: They are too big, they overheat, they are unreliable, they consume too much power. The company wants to build a cutting-edge machine, and transistors are the computer technology of the future. “Olivetti will launch a fully transistorized machine," Tchou tells them.

The ELEA 9003's console display.High Design: Architect Ettore Sottsass Jr. created the ELEA 9003's ergonomic design and distinctive look, including the console's mosaic-like display.Photo: Elisabetta Mori

Within a year, the lab would finish a prototype of the new machine. In support of that effort, Olivetti would also launch its own transistor company and strike a strategic alliance with Fairchild Semiconductor. When Olivetti's first mainframe, the ELEA 9003, is unveiled in 1959, it is an astonishing work of industrial design—modular, technologically advanced, and built to human scale. Olivetti, better known for its typewriters, adding machines, and iconic advertisements, was suddenly a computer company to reckon with.

The fact that most historical accounts largely ignore Olivetti's role as an early pioneer of computing and transistors may have something to do with the series of tragic events that would transpire after the ELEA 9003's introduction. But it is a history worth revisiting, because the legacy of Olivetti lives on in some surprising ways.

During World War II, computers were expensive, fragile, and hidden, restricted to military and scientific purposes. But after the war, businesses were quick to adopt computers to address their escalating need for information management. The machines on offer relied on vacuum tubes, punch tape, and punch cards, and they were slow and unreliable. But they were much faster than the manual and mechanical systems they were replacing.

The engineer and entrepreneur Camillo Olivetti founded Olivetti in 1908 as the first typewriter manufacturer in Italy. Production at the company's factory in Ivrea, near Turin, later expanded to mechanical calculators and other office equipment.

Adriano OlivettiThe Visionary: Adriano Olivetti transformed his father's typewriter company into an industrial powerhouse.Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1920s, Camillo's eldest son, Adriano, became more involved in the family business. Adriano had studied chemical engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. Camillo, a socialist, initially employed his son as an unskilled worker in the Olivetti factory. He then sent Adriano to the United States to study industrial methods. In 1926, the Olivettis reorganized the company's production according to the principles of scientific management. By 1938, Adriano had assumed the presidency of Olivetti.

Adriano believed that the profits of industry should be reinvested for the betterment of society. Under his tenure, the company offered worker benefits that had no equal in Italy at the time, including more equitable pay for women, a complete range of health services, nine months of paid maternity leave, and free childcare. In addition, the Ivrea factory had a large library with 30,000 volumes.

Adriano also established an experimental marketing and advertising department, surrounding himself with smart young designers, architects, artists, poets, photographers, and musicians. The combination of Adriano's initiatives spurred the company to wider international prominence.

After World War II, Adriano became convinced that electronics was the future of the company, and so he established a joint venture with the French firm Compagnie des Machines Bull. Bull was one of the biggest punch-card equipment manufacturers in Europe, and it had just entered the computer business. The Olivetti-Bull Company became the official reseller of Bull's products in Italy, and the partnership helped Olivetti survey the domestic market potential for computers.

Dino OlivettiThe Ex-Pat: Dino Olivetti, Adriano's youngest brother, founded the company's U.S.-based computer R&D lab.Photo: Istituto Luce Cinecittà/contrasto/Redux

In 1952, Olivetti founded a computer research center in New Canaan, Conn., at the recommendation of Dino Olivetti, Adriano's youngest brother. Dino had studied at MIT and was president of the Olivetti Corp. of America. (That same year, Dino contributed to an exhibition devoted to Olivetti products and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.) The lab kept tabs on developments in the United States, where electronics and computers were at the forefront.

Olivetti sought a worthy academic partner for its computer business. After a failed alliance with Rome University in the early 1950s, the company partnered with the University of Pisa in 1955. At the time, the only two computers in the country were a National Cash Register CRC 102A, installed at the Milan Polytechnic, and a Ferranti Mark I*, installed at an applied math research institute in Rome.

The University of Pisa began building a research computer, with Olivetti providing financial support, electronic components, patent licenses, and employees. In exchange, Olivetti's staff gained valuable experience. While the Pisa project aimed to create a single scientific machine for researchers, Olivetti hoped to develop a series of commercial computers for the business market.

Adriano searched for an expert engineer and manager to set up a computer lab within the company and lead Olivetti's computer team. He eventually found both in Mario Tchou. Born in Italy in 1924, Tchou was the son of Yin Tchou, a Chinese diplomat stationed in Rome and Vatican City. After studying electrical engineering at the Sapienza University of Rome, Mario received a scholarship to the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., where he obtained a bachelor's degree in electronic engineering. In 1949, he moved to New York City to get a master's in physics at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and three years later, he became an associate professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University.

dfThe Engineer: Mario Tchou led Olivetti's electronics lab, which built the ELEA 9003.Photo: Donata and Nicoletta Tchou

Adriano Olivetti met Mario Tchou in New York City in August 1954 and immediately decided he was the perfect choice. Tchou was an expert in digital control systems, and he worked at one of the most advanced electronics and computing research labs in the United States. He was also a native Italian speaker and understood the company's culture. Adriano and his son Roberto convinced Tchou to move back to Italy and become the leader of their Laboratorio Ricerche Elettroniche, in Pisa.

The lab's first project, Macchina Zero, went as well as could be expected, but Tchou's decision in 1957 to switch to transistors involved risks and potential delays. The company would need at least 100,000 transistors and diodes for each installation. But in Italy as elsewhere, transistors were in short supply. Rather than importing devices from the United States or elsewhere, the company decided to manufacture the devices in-house. The move would give Olivetti a secure and continuous source of components as well as expertise and insights into the latest developments in the field.

In 1957, with Telettra, an Italian telecommunications company, Olivetti founded the SGS Company (which stands for Società Generale Semiconduttori). SGS soon began producing germanium alloy junction transistors, based on technology licensed from General Electric.

SGS's next generation of transistors, though, would be silicon, manufactured in partnership with Fairchild Semiconductor. The California startup had been founded the same year as SGS by a group of young scientists and engineers that included Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. In late 1959, SGS contacted Fairchild through Olivetti's New Canaan lab, and the following year Fairchild became an equal partner in SGS with Olivetti and Telettra. Olivetti now had access to Fairchild's pathbreaking technology. That included the planar process, which Fairchild had patented in 1959 and is still used to make integrated circuits.

Photo of the last working ELEA computer.Sole Survivor: Shown here is the last working ELEA 9003 computer, which is still housed in a technical high school in Tuscany.Photo: Elisabetta Mori

The result of Tchou's push for a transistorized computer was the ELEA 9003, the first commercial computer to be made in Italy. It launched in 1959, and between 1960 and 1964, about 40 of the mainframes were sold or leased to Italian clients, mainly in banking and industry.

ELEA belongs to what historians of computing consider the second generation of computers—that is, machines that used transistors and ferrite-core memories. In this respect, the ELEA 9003 was similar to the IBM 7070 and the Siemens 2002. Core memories were arrays of tiny magnetic rings threaded with copper wire. Each core could be magnetized clockwise or counterclockwise, to represent one bit of information—a 1 or a 0. Olivetti workers sewed the ELEA memories by hand at the Borgolombardo factory, near Milan, where the ELEAs were assembled.

The minimum unit of memory in the ELEA 9003 was the character, which consisted of six bits plus a parity bit. The total memory ranged from 20,000 to 160,000 characters, with a typical installation having about 40,000. Two Olivetti engineers, Giorgio Sacerdoti and Martin Friedman, had previously worked with Ferranti computers. Their background may have influenced some design decisions for the 9003, in particular the computer architecture. However, the Ferranti Mark I* that Sacerdoti worked on in Rome used Williams-Kilburn tubes and vacuum tubes instead of core memory and transistors.

newThe Designer: Italian architecture Ettore Sottsass Jr. created the ELEA 9003's human-centric aesthetics.Photo: Pino Montisci/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

To oversee the aesthetic design of the new computer, Adriano brought in the Italian architect Ettore Sottsass Jr. Assisted by Dutch designer Andries Van Onck, Sottsass focused on the human-machine interface, using human factors and ergonomics to make the computer easier to operate and maintain. For example, he standardized the height of the racks at 150 centimeters, to allow engineers and technicians working on either side to visually communicate with one another, as computers were very noisy in those days.

The ELEA 9003 was housed in a series of modular cabinets. Colored strips identified the contents of each cabinet, such as the power supply, memory, arithmetic logic unit, and the control unit for the peripherals, which included printers and Ampex magnetic tape drives. Some ELEA 9003 installations employed vacuum tubes for the power supplies and tape decks.

To facilitate the testing and repair of circuit boards, Sottsass arranged each rack in three parts: a central section and two wings, which could be opened like a book. He also organized the connection cables in channels above the racks. Typical mainframes of that era had their cables positioned beneath the floor, making maintenance cumbersome and expensive.

newMade in Italy: To supply transistors for its computers, Olivetti cofounded SGS, which is now part of STMicroelectronics.Photos, left: Elisabetta Mori; right: Liquid Cat

The console's display used a grid of colored cubes, similar to mosaic tiles. Each cube was engraved with a letter or a symbol. Different sections of the display showed the status of the 9003's components. An operator could use the console's keyboard to enter instructions, one at a time, for direct execution.

Sottsass's design for the Olivetti ELEA 9003 was complex but elegant. It was awarded the prestigious Compasso d'Oro (Golden Compass) industrial design prize in 1959.

graphic link to sidebar storyOlivetti's Programma 101: The Calculator That Helped Land Men on the Moon

Olivetti aimed to export the ELEA to the international market. Rather than translating the computer's commands and abbreviations from Italian into English, French, or German, the company devised a bold solution. It commissioned the Ulm School of Design, one of the most progressive design centers at the time, to develop a system of symbols that would be independent of any one language. Although the resulting sign system was never used in the ELEA series, it prefigures today's widespread use of icons in computer interfaces.

Olivetti's big plans for exporting its computers included the acquisition of the U.S. typewriter manufacturer Underwood in 1959. With this move, Olivetti hoped to leverage Underwood's powerful commercial network to strengthen its sales in the United States. The acquisition, however, depleted the company's coffers. Worse, Olivetti discovered that Underwood's manufacturing facilities were outdated and its financial situation bleak.

Then, on 27 February 1960, Adriano Olivetti died from a stroke while traveling by train from Milan to Lausanne. He was 58 years old. The following year, Mario Tchou was killed in a car accident at the age of 37. At the time of his death, Tchou had been spearheading the development of a new generation of Olivetti computers that incorporated silicon components from SGS-Fairchild. With these tragic deaths, Olivetti's computer division lost its most charismatic and visionary leaders.

newThe Heir: Adriano Olivetti's son Roberto tried to keep the computer business going after Adriano's and Tchou's deaths.Photo: Keystone Press/Alamy

The next several years proved tumultuous for the company. Roberto Olivetti tried to keep the computer business going, even appealing to the Italian government for aid. But the government didn't view electronics and computers as a matter of national interest and so refused to bail out Olivetti's electronics division. (Nor had the government supported Olivetti's development of the ELEA, in stark contrast to the U.S. and British governments' generous support of their domestic computer makers.) Meanwhile, the U.S. government, through its former ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, reportedly was pressuring Olivetti to sell its electronics division, which it finally did to General Electric in 1964.

The sale to GE did not include Olivetti's small-size programmable calculators, which the company continued to develop. The Programma 101 came to market in 1965 and proved an instant hit. [See sidebar, " The Calculator That Helped Land Men On the Moon."]

Acquiring Olivetti was part of GE's strategy to enter the European computer market. Olivetti's French partner, Bull, also faced financial difficulties and was also bought by GE in 1964. GE continued building computers based on Olivetti's smaller models and sold them as the GE 100 series. The ELEA 4115, for example, became the GE 115. Eventually, GE sold about 4,000 machines in the GE 100 line.

We can't know how far Olivetti would have taken its computer business had Adriano Olivetti and Mario Tchou lived longer. What we do know is that the electronics division left behind an impressive legacy of design, advanced hardware, and talented engineers.

Olivetti had unquestionably the most elegant computers of its day. Adriano viewed computers as complex artifacts, whose aesthetics, ergonomics, and user experience had to be carefully cultivated in parallel with the technology. He organized every aspect of the company, including the factories, workers, advertising, and marketing, to embrace this holistic approach to design. In his famous 1973 lecture “Good Design Is Good Business," IBM's Thomas J. Watson Jr. credited Adriano Olivetti for inspiring IBM's own overhaul of its corporate aesthetic in the late 1950s.

Olivetti's computer legacy also lives on through its transistor business. In 1987, SGS merged with the French-owned Thomson Semiconducteurs to form STMicroelectronics, now a multinational manufacturer of microchips.

Federico Faggin Olivetti teamMicrochip Pioneer: Federico Faggin (left) joined Olivetti when he was 19 years old. Later, he helped design the Intel 4004, the first commercial microprocessor.Photo: Federico Faggin

And the people hired by Olivetti continued to make their mark. Of the many capable engineers and scientists who passed through Olivetti's doors, one stands out. In 1960, the company hired a 19-year-old named Federico Faggin to work in its electronics lab. During Faggin's years at Olivetti, he learned about computer architecture and logic and circuit design and helped to build a small experimental computer.

Later, after earning a physics degree from the University of Padua, Faggin worked briefly at SGS-Fairchild in Italy before moving to Fairchild's R&D lab in Palo Alto, Calif., and then to Intel. Drawing on his experience at Olivetti and SGS, he soon joined the small team that created the Intel 4004, the first commercial microprocessor. And so, although Olivetti's foray into building mainframe computers suffered a premature death, the effort indirectly contributed to the birth of the microcomputer industry that surrounds us today.

This article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “The Italian Computer."

For more about Mori's close encounter with an ELEA 9003 computer, see “The Last Working Olivetti Mainframe Sits In a Tuscan High School."

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