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The Last Working Olivetti Mainframe Sits In a Tuscan High School

How an encounter with the ELEA 9003 inspired a tech historian's career

2 min read
Photograph of Elisabetta Mori at the console of the last working ELEA 9003 in Tuscany.
Computer historian Elisabetta Mori visits the last working ELEA 9003 mainframe computer.
Photo: Armin Linke

About 10 years ago, Elisabetta Mori and some friends were doing research for an art exhibit on the theme of “archives of memories.”

“We approached the theme literally, and so we looked for old examples of physical memories—computer memories,” Mori recalls. “We tried to see the oldest computers built in Italy.” At the Museum of Computing Machinery in Pisa, they saw the Calcolatrice Elettronica Pisana, an early digital computer built by the University of Pisa in 1957 with the support of the Olivetti company. But the machine had long ago stopped working.

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polaroid sx-70 camera, silver with brown leather, open on white surface
Thomas Backa

In one corner stood the defending champion, Texas Instruments. In the other stood the challenger, Fairchild Semiconductor. The referee, judge, promoter, and only spectator was Polaroid. In contention was the contract for the electronics of Polaroid’s secret project—a pioneering product introduced in 1972 as the SX-70, a camera eventually purchased by millions of people.

As the embodiment of truly automated instant photography, the SX-70 fulfilled a long-held dream of Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corp., Cambridge, Mass. Vital to this “point and shoot” capability was a new film—one that would develop while exposed to light and so eliminate the tear-away covers of previous Polaroid films. Also vital were sophisticated electronics to control all single lens reflex (SLR) camera functions, including flashbulb selection, exposure control, mirror positioning, start of print development, and ejection of print. These circuits were divided into three modules, one each for motor, exposure and logic, and flash control. At the final count, some 400 transistors were used.

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