Close

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.

Keep reading... Show less

Stay ahead of the latest trends in technology. Become an IEEE member.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

For Better AR Cameras, Swap Plastic Lenses for Silicon Chips

Metalenz adds the power of polarization to its innovative PolarEyes chips

5 min read
Silicon Nanostructures

Metalenz uses standard semiconductor manufacturing processes to build metasurfaces comprising nanostructures that control light, with one chip replacing multiple traditional camera lenses.

Metalenz

This week, startup Metalenz announced that it has created a silicon chip that, paired with an image sensor, can distinguish objects by the way they polarize light. The company says its “PolarEyes” will be able to make facial authentication less vulnerable to spoofing, improve 3D imaging for augmented and virtual reality, aid in telehealth by distinguishing different types of skin cells, and enhance driving safety by spotting black ice and other hard-to-see road hazards.

The company, founded in 2017 and exiting stealth a year ago, previously announced that it was commercializing waveguides composed of silicon nanostructures as an alternative to traditional optics for use in mobile devices.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

How Quantum Computers Can Make Batteries Better

Hyundai partners with IonQ to optimize lithium-air batteries

3 min read
A tan car with a Hyundai logo. Overlayed is a rendering of lithium-air batteries with a call-out showing a rendering of a molecular compound
Hyundai

Hyundai is now partnering with startup IonQ to see how quantum computers can design advanced batteries for electric vehicles, with the aim of creating the largest battery chemistry model yet to be run on a quantum computer, the companies announced yesterday.

A quantum computer with high enough complexity—for instance, enough components known as quantum bits or "qubits"—could theoretically achieve a quantum advantage where it can find the answers to problems no classical computer could ever solve. In theory, a quantum computer with 300 qubits fully devoted to computing could perform more calculations in an instant than there are atoms in the visible universe.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less