- “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....
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.
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.