Olivetti, Programma 101
Since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the origin of things and/or where things come from. A few months ago I came across a Facebook posting, by an Italian friend of mine, with a link to a newspaper article titled: “A 50 anni dalla nascita, Renzi incontra gli inventori della Olivetti, Programma 101” [Translations: “At 50 years from its birth, the Italian prime minister (Mr. Matteo Renzi), meets the inventors of the Programma 101”]
I grew up in an Italian city (Biella) very close to Ivrea which hosts the Olivetti HQ, so naturally I was curious about this article and its content. But when I read it I became obsessed with the details of how and why this product came about and eventually disappeared.
What is the “Programma 101”
So what is this thing? It literally is a programmable calculator, which in modern terms it is called Computer. It is important to remember what a computer really is, as naturally today we think of screens, touch screens, phones, iPads, etc. But the core is the actual “computer” = programmable calculator.
The definition of the word “computer” given by dictionary.com is:
“a programmable electronic device designed to accept data, perform prescribed mathematical and logical operations at high speed, and display the results of these operations.”
In this case the Programma 101 had a keyboard for input and a paper roll printer for output, we feed her data, she makes the calculation and spits out the results on paper. So it is a Computer, as per the above definition.
Why was it revolutionary?
To give you a little bit of a historical context, in the 50/60s the only computers around were the very, very large mainframe that we saw in the movies. In the United States, IBM created the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) this huge mega computer that was operational between 1958 and 1966. Look at the numbers!!
On the other side of the ocean Olivetti, already one of the world leaders in type writes and calculators, decided to challenge the US IBM computer hegemony, by investing lots of money in new technologies and eventually build the Elea 9000 (Elaboratore Elettronico Aritmetico [Arithmetical Electronic Computer], name then changed in Elaboratore Elettronico Automatico for marketing reasons) launched in 1957 .
In both cases these huge machines were mainly used by the government, the military, universities and very large corporations for their internal calculation (taxes, payroll, financial, automation, etc. ). Regular folks were actually scared of these large machine that could manage such enormous amount of data, it was at this time that rumors about computers taking over the world started, giving eventually way to movies like “2001 Space Odyssey”, “War Games”, “Terminator”, etc.
In 1960 something important happened: the CEO and president of Olivetti, Mr. Adriano Olivetti passed away and his son Roberto took over the company. With the intent of following into his father foot steps and keep on moving even further into the future, he commissioned a small group of engineers to build a new type of computer something that was never been built or even imagined before.
- Pier Giorgio Perotto Project manager
- Gastone Garziera
- Giacomo Toppi
- Giovanni De Sandre
Perotto wanted to build a product small enough to be on the desk of any office, easy enough that a secretary could program it and powerful enough to compute very quickly. So they embark in this journey with some major challenges to overcome at that time.
The first challenge in building something like this was the memory; the transistor barely started to enter the marker, so you understand that the miniaturization technology was at the very early stages. At that time the existing memory was huge (1/2 a cubic yard dimension for few bytes of memory), extremely expensive hence it would not work for a desk top appliance.
They come up with a type of Magnetostrictive Delay Line memory which is some sort of steel wire coiled around into a circuit. It was pretty much as big as today’s motherboards. It was a refreshable memory but its access was sequential, like a magnetic tape.
The total memory of the Programma 101 was 120 bytes.
Once you typed in the program then there was no place to store it, so that it could be used again after the machine was turned off. They thought of using a magnetic strip on each side of a cardstock card to store to programs. This to me was genius! They actually paved the way for what eventually became the floppy disk.
If you think that the internal memory of the Programma 101 had 120 Bytes and these cards could store 1 maybe 2 programs we are talking about max 240 bytes. Compare it to today PC storage space …
They needed a very simple programming language. So they used a combination of letters and operators that could be concatenated into a series of calculation. It is actually not as simple as it could be but compared to the languages used for the big mainframe of that time, this was a breeze. It was similar to Assembly, where you had to control where the data is stored how to move it, etc. Here is an example:
Design was always a key aspect of a machine creation for Olivetti since the early days. Their products won several design awards throughout Olivetti history.
Once the prototype was ready and functional Olivetti commissioned Mario Bellini to work on the shape and design of the machine. Bellini is a renown architect of international fame, he received 8 times the Golden Compass Award and 25 of his works are part of the New York MoMA permanent collection
And he transformed the prototype into a wonderful final product:
The marketing campaign was very futuristic and cutting edge for the time, and in looking at some of the brochure used to promote the product I could not avoid to think: “Did Apple steal the Programma 101 marketing design concepts?”… Probably not since the Programma 101 looked much prettier than the Apple II.
The Final Product
- In 1964 Olivetti presented the Programma 101 to the New York world fair and it was an instant success.
- It was launched in the market (mainly the US) in 1965.
- It sold about 44,000 units.
- And was priced at $3,200 (about $24,000 today, based on the US Inflation Calculator)
After the Programma 101 the next serious attempts to produce a personal computer or home computer were in the late 70s with Apple I (1976), early version of the Commodore (1977), and the big revolution of the early 80s with the x86 architecture of the Intel microprocessor and the popularization of the IBM PC and all its clones. Along came different operating systems such as MS DOS, Windows and the Apple OS. All this 10-15 years after the Programma 101 was introduced to the markets. It definitely was a product ahead of its time, Wikipedia considers it the first PC.
A few fun facts
- Although it didn’t have a CPU, its computational ability and dimensions were so extraordinary that NASA bought 10 units to run the Apollo 11 landing on the moon mission.
- The US Air Force used it to compute coordinates for ground directed bombing of B-52 targets during the Vietnam War. (not really a “fun” fact)
- In 1968 HP developed the HP 9100 which was basically a copy of to the Programma 101, to the point the HP had to pay $900,000 in royalties to Olivetti (about $6.2M in today’s terms).