Beyond The Dreaming Spires


Mention Oxford to most people and an image of beautiful golden stone buildings with spires and domes comes to mind. The High Street or ‘The High’ is surely one of the most splendid streets in the world from Magdalen Bridge and the magnificent Magdalen Tower up to Carfax Tower, passing medieval college walls mixed with old shopfronts and the University Church of St Mary’s at its centre. Unfortunately this is only a small fragment of the city and apart from leafy North Oxford and a few other pleasant residential areas the rest of it is blighted by suburban sprawl. Oxford has long been an industrial city as well as an academic one and to the south east are endless streets of pre-war and 1950s council houses, 1930s semis, and Morris car factory workers’ housing.

Since first visiting the place I have been struck by the difference between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’ exemplified by the beautiful architecture from the 13th century up to 1914, centred around the University, and the dross that followed WW1 and the city’s expansion. No other English city has such a contrast between the historic centre and everywhere else. Mediocre development continues to this day with a few honourable exceptions (see my post on the appalling University buildings that have recently blighted the 1000 year old Port Meadow).

The beauty of the University has been photographed by countless tourists but I thought I would take my old Leica down to the suburban streets of the ‘real’ Oxford to capture a more accurate view of the city ‘beyond the Dreaming Spires’…….












Posted in Architecture, Blots on the Cityscape, Blots on the Townscape, Building, Housing, Housing Design, Oxford, Ugly Buildings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

Leica 1 Model C – The First System Camera

The renowned optical instrument firm of Ernst Leitz of Wetzlar in Germany produced the first modern camera in 1925, the Leica 1 Model A.  Designed by two brilliant engineers, Oskar Barnack and Max Berek, it revolutionised photography by using 35mm cine film combined with outstanding optics in a pocket-sized camera.  By the end of the ’20s over 21,000 had been sold, and enthusiastic customers such as Alexander Rodchenko, André Kertész and Paul Wolff were changing the way photographs were taken. Candid street photography became possible as you no longer had to lug around heavy plate cameras and tripods to get good quality photographs. Kodak roll film cameras had a huge impact on amateur photography from the end of the 19th Century but the quality of the images was poor and serious photographers still preferred using plates until the Leica came along.


A disadvantage of the Model A was that it came with a fixed 50mm lens and so Leitz answered the growing demand for different focal lengths by coming up with the Model C in 1930 which was fitted with a flange so that screw-in lenses could be used. The previous Model B was the Compur Leica which had a leaf shutter within the fixed lens.

Because the alloy bodies were not all identical the flange to film plane distance on the first few thousand cameras was individually adjusted. The lenses were matched to each body and part of the camera number was engraved on the lens. There was a small ‘peep hole’ for focusing at the back of the camera body so that Leitz technicians could make final minute adjustments to the lens flange.

The obvious problem with this was that you had to buy a matching set of expensive lenses when you bought the camera. After around 3000 cameras had been produced the flange to film distance was set at exactly 28.8mm and lenses were truly interchangeable. The flanges and lenses were marked with a numeral ‘0’ to signify the change. Many of the ‘non-standard’ Model Cs were converted to the standard type by the factory and original ones, especially with a set of matching lenses, are very rare indeed.


The first available lenses were the standard f3.5 50mm lens, a f3.5 35mm wide angle lens, a telephoto f4.5 135mm, all called Elmar*, and a faster 50mm lens, the f2.5 Hektor (named after Berek’s dog!). The image above shows the telephoto, standard and wide angle lenses, with a FOFER range-finder, and VISIL torpedo view-finder. Note the small ‘0’ at 12 o’clock on the camera body lens flange signifying that this is the standard Model C. All this kit would have cost you the equivalent of £2,500 in today’s money, a lot cheaper than a modern Leica!

*Elmar = a combination of the letters in Ernst Leitz and Max Berek – it replaced the more obvious Elmax name of the previous version due to a patent claim by a rival optical company.

Right from the start of production the Leica was available with a range of accessories. Barnack was convinced that Leitz must have an influence over the whole photographic process to ensure that photographs from the camera were top quality. Film cassettes, range and view-finders, enlargers and developing tanks were offered, and by 1931 the Leica catalogue ran to nearly 100 pages. These examples show some of the huge range of accessories on offer:

1931 catalogue 2

1994 photos of pit filled in

1931 catalogue 3

Below is a small selection from the catalogue (apart from the 1933 ELDUR glass slide contact printer at the back). There are various yellow and UV filters with a leather filter purse, close-up lenses, a developing tank with thermometer, film winding and trimming devices, and an ELDIA contact printer. The small black device by the leather case is a WINKO right angle view-finder. Two film cassettes are shown by a rare twin cardboard container. Modern 35mm film cassettes were based on these and will fit the early Leicas!


The unique Leitz reference code for each product is shown in the catalogue against each item. Leica aficionados are familiar with the quirky, and sometimes unintentionally amusing, five letter codes that Ernst Leitz provided for everything that they sold, from cameras and binoculars to darkroom accessories and rolls of gummed paper. In fact this was quite common for manufacturers since the start of the telegraph. You generally paid by the word for a telegram so asking Leitz to send another 6 “Extra long arms for attaching the Leica to the upright of the Large Copying Device with nose for the auxiliary housing” would have cost a lot more than just asking for 6 more VEARMs. It also avoided any confusion between similar products. Generally made up of of five letters some of the codes were loosely based on German words for the item, such as the above example. Some are amusing to English speakers such as NOOKY (close-up device for the Elmar lens), POOHY (red filter), or ACHOO (Leica III camera). The derivation of most, such as VOLIG, VOMIR, VOOAL, VOODZ, VOOWI (enlarging equipment parts), is a total mystery. Not foreseen by Leitz, for modern collectors these code words are a boon when searching on Ebay!

For more detailed descriptions of early Leica accessories have a look at these posts on the OPINIONATED DESIGNER blog:

Leica VISOR, VIDOM, and VIOOH Viewfinders

Leica APDOO Self-timer, WINKO, WINTU, and AUFSU Viewfinders

Leica RASAL and ROSOL Framefinders

Leica FIKUS Lens Hood

The ‘bible’ for accessory aficionados is ‘Leica, An Illustrated History, Volume III – Accessories’ by James Lager (1998 ISBN 0-9636973-3-1)



Posted in 1930s photography, Camera, Cameras, Design, Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Blot on the Historic Townscape

King’s Lane Development, Cambridge, UK (1967)  – Architect: James Cubitt & Partners 

There are so many third-rate modern buildings around they just blend into the background, but sometimes you come across one that is so crass, ugly, and ridiculous that you just have to wonder what was going through the designer’s head. Walking along Trumpington Street, the main historic route through Cambridge, this monstrosity stopped me in my tracks.


This is the visible part of a large development of student accommodation behind the street which emerges into a space between two old college buildings in honey coloured stone, part of King’s College. It has absolutely no relationship with either in proportions, materials, detailing and everything else you can think of. Insensitive is the mildest adjective to describe this building. It is hideous and crude in every single respect and is just the sort of miserable 1960s edifice that made everyone loathe architects. King’s College is equally to blame for being persuaded at the presentation that this awful design would be suitable for this historic site and not sacking Cubitts on the spot. The planners of this era would approve any old rubbish as long as it was ‘modern’ so no surprise there.


The design concept for this elevation is mystifying. Perhaps the parapet used to line up with the building on the left before the roof extension, and presumably the giant bay is meant to reflect the corner turret of its Victorian neighbour. Are the badly stained recessed lines in the facade meant to be a nod to the rustication of its classical neighbour? Not sure what the tatty looking grey metal windows and panels have been inspired by – the extension of the mullions into little spikes above the roof was presumably meant to liven up the roof line, who knows? The mullions also do a great job of staining the facade below them. And presumably the stone was chosen to match the limestone of King’s College Chapel and its neighbours up the road instead of the ones next door? In fact, I am giving some credit to the architects for thinking about ‘context’ when of course in that dismal era of British Modernism it was a dirty word. The entire aim of this building was to show utter contempt for its old neighbours. At least it isn’t listed so there is some hope it could be demolished and replaced with something more sensitive in the future.

Unfortunately Cubitts is still a large multi-disciplinary practice spreading its vile designs around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. Check out this link to get an idea:!__offices/cairo

The practice is obviously not ashamed of its work at King’s Lane which is still shown on its website!

King’s College shows how much it thinks of one of its most illustrious alumni, Alan Turing, by putting up a blue plaque in his honour, not on one of the many beautiful walls it owns but on the revolting stained flanks of this eyesore which wasn’t even built when he was alive.


Posted in Architecture, Blots on the Townscape, Building, Ugly Buildings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

Dismal Designs – The Hearing Aid


An elderly relation of mine has some Starkey 3 Series hearing aids which cost an extraordinary £2,500 ($3,600)! Apart from the outrageous price, of which more later, this is one of the most badly designed consumer products I have ever come across. Old people’s hands tend to be unsteady, and their eyesight is often poor, so the ‘geniuses’ at Starkey came up with an off switch that doubles up as a battery holder so when you pull it out with shaky fingers the tiny battery usually falls on the floor and can’t be found by someone who has difficulties bending down and can’t see very well. She dropped one of the aids fiddling about with this ridiculous switch and it promptly broke into two because of the brittle and flimsy plastic. The hearing aid centre charged her hundreds of pounds to fix it, and soon afterwards she dropped it again with the same result! Because of the expense she now only uses the surviving one which is very inconvenient.


Why do you need a loose battery or such a crude switch? What about proximity wireless charging like the Apple Watch? What about having it switch off automatically when it is taken out of the ear? Modern camera electronic viewfinders sense when your eye is against them so it can’t be that difficult. The whole concept and design of the electronics (presumably just a microphone, speaker, and digital signal processor) look like something out of the 1970s. As the case had split open you could see the rather basic looking components and wiring inside, which didn’t look very complicated or expensive, so I found a breakdown of the costs of these things. As I suspected the profit margins are huge!


The breakdown for a pair of typical mid-range hearing aids is apparently as follows (US dollars):

Cost of manufacture – $250, then sold to a specialist hearing aid centre for $1,000 which includes research and development costs, marketing and $425 profit. The retailer then charges another $2,000 to cover their overheads and profit, selling them for $3,000. The audiologist profession maintain they need this level of profit to cover fitting, cleaning and adjustments, and the ‘personal touch’……!! This is all reminiscent of opticians some years ago selling outrageously priced glasses, which now of course you can get much cheaper from your local pharmacy and high street chain.

There are now some web-based suppliers such as Audicus in the US and Hearing Direct in the UK selling hearing aids for under $500/£340, so hopefully this might force the large manufacturers to come up with innovative modern designs at a reasonable price.

There is also growing interest in more sophisticated alternative solutions to the conventional device using smartphones:

Posted in Design, product design, Uncategorized | Tagged ,

A Factory Filled with Light – Olivetti at Pozzuoli


“…Facing the most remarkable bay in the world, the architect has designed this factory to respect its beautiful surroundings and to make this beauty a source of comfort in the working day. We wanted nature to be part of the life of the factory rather than being excluded by a building which was too large, in which the windowless walls, air conditioning, and artificial light would diminish, day by day, the spirit of those working there. 

The factory was therefore designed to a human scale because in such surroundings the workplace will be an instrument of fulfilment and not a source of suffering. So we wanted low windows, open courtyards, and trees in the garden to banish the feeling of being in a constricted and hostile enclosure….”

Pozzuoli 1

60 years ago, on the 23rd April 1955, with these words in a speech to his employees, Adriano Olivetti opened his new office machine factory in Pozzuoli overlooking the Bay of Naples. These are not the sort of words usually uttered by a factory owner but Olivetti was no ordinary boss. One of the most remarkable industrialists and intellectuals of the Twentieth Century he had developed a utopian vision of the place of industry in society that this pioneering factory exemplified. This vision had developed in the twenty years since he took over the direction of his father’s company in 1933.


fedora (2)In 1908 Camillo Olivetti (1868-1943) had established Ing. C. Olivetti & C. in the small northern Italian town of Ivrea, near to Turin, as Italy’s first typewriter factory (illus.). A gifted engineer, he had been inspired by a stay in the USA to first import, then make, typewriters which were becoming essential equipment in most offices. The company grew rapidly and by the early 1920s was employing 250 and making over 2,000 machines a year. Olivetti was also an early Socialist, involved in radical politics at the turn of the century, and he published two left-wing newspapers. His factory pioneered social reforms in a country with generally appalling working conditions providing his employees with health and accident insurance, good wages, apprenticeships, further education, and subsidised housing. His socialist and anti-fascist views soon brought him, and his son Adriano, into conflict with the Mussolini regime and it was only the state’s need for Italian-made typewriters (as vital as computers are today) that prevented the firm from being closed down during the Fascist period.


Adriano Olivetti (1901-1960) shared his parents’ socialist opinions and strong moral purpose and, although trained as an engineer, he became an editor of one of Camillo’s newspapers at an early age. However, the failure of Italian socialism in the early 1920s and the rise of Mussolini disillusioned him (1) and he decided against a career in political journalism, joining the family firm as an apprentice in 1924. Following a tour of America in 1925, where he saw the mass-production methods of Ford and the vast Remington typewriter factories, he persuaded his father to transform the rather old-fashioned way Olivetti produced its machines. By the time Adriano became president of the firm in 1938 it had grown by 400% into a global business employing more than 2,000 workers.

During this period of rapid expansion the welfare of the Olivetti employees had not been forgotten. Adriano’s enthusiasm for modern management techniques included the development of social policies along with a new emphasis on industrial and graphic design, and modern architecture. Increasing profits were used for the benefit of the company’s workers. A foundation was created to provide financial assistance to injured or sick employees, social services were extended to include a health service, convalescent home, libraries, schools and a summer camp, and a whole district of subsidised worker housing was planned. Olivetti had embraced Modernism with enthusiasm, inviting Le Corbusier to Ivrea in 1934 to discuss management, architecture and planning. He brought together a group of young avant-garde Milanese architects to help him plan the expansion of the company’s facilities, and to develop a regional plan for the area around Ivrea which culminated in the Piano Regolatore di Valle d’Aosta (General Plan of the Aosta Valley) in 1937.

Olivetti complex in via Jervis: first extension Architect Figini1936 Factory extension, Ivrea, Architects Figini and Pollini (1949 extension by the same architects in the background)

The Olivettis’ relationship with the Fascist regime had been complex. Rather like Leitz (Leica) in Nazi Germany, the family’s politics and opposition were well known but the state needed their expertise and products. Their newspaper (Tempi Nuovi) was forced to close in 1925 after being attacked by the Fascists, and Adriano had a brief period of exile in London following his involvement in the escape to France of Filippo Turati, the veteran Socialist leader, in 1926. Despite this, to protect his business, he joined the Fascist Party in the late 30s whilst continuing his clandestine support for the anti-fascist movement. After the Nazi occupation of Italy he had to escape again in February 1944, this time to Switzerland, after being imprisoned by the Badoglio government. His father had already gone into hiding to avoid arrest, and he had died in December 1943. The Olivetti factories in Ivrea became the headquarters for the partisans in the region, and 24 employees were killed during the resistance struggle.


Olivetti had started to think about the reconstruction and ‘resurrection’ of post-war Italy as early as 1942, and his exile in Switzerland provided an opportunity for him to develop further his theories on urban and regional planning that he had begun with the Valle d’Aosta Plan. These ideas crystallized into the doctrine of Comunità or Community set out in his book ‘L’ordine politico delle Comunità published in 1945. He was a great admirer of the US writer and urban theorist Lewis Mumford whose 1938 book ‘The Culture of Cities’ stressed the importance of the region, ‘an area large enough to embrace a sufficient range of interests and small enough to keep these interests in focus and make them a subject of collective concern’.

Olivetti believed that industrialisation and urbanisation were destroying that sense of community and closeness to nature that people felt when they lived in smaller scale surroundings with natural and human boundaries, drawing inspiration from his own experience of living and working in the Canavese region around Ivrea, and the Canton system of government in Switzerland. He proposed that society should be organised in small self-governing communities of between 150,000 and 75,000 inhabitants, centred around industry or technology which would be integrated with housing and agriculture, in effect a form of (liberal) corporatism. He thought that this would be the best way to combine the needs of an industrial society with the values of a traditional one.

These autonomous communities would have their own government, legislature, scientific and academic organisations and, as in Switzerland, they would be organized into a national Federation. They would each represent the ‘spazio naturale dell’uomo’, defined by the natural limits of human social relationships and geography. For a community to function properly, argued Olivetti, its citizens must be in touch with one another and as much as possible with their political leaders. Direct contact with the natural world was also vital. Olivetti was promoting a sustainable society decades before the term was invented.


On his return from Switzerland in 1945 Olivetti founded a journal, a publishing group, and the Movimento di Comunità, keen to disseminate his ideas as Italy was re-building after the war. The Movimento was to be a forum for debate and education, and it established community centres throughout Italy which provided a variety of services as well as spreading the ideas of its founder. It also moved into the political arena by entering the elections in 1953 (not very successfully, although Olivetti became an MP in 1958).

To have some influence on the planning of post-war Italy Olivetti had joined the administration of UNRRA-Casas, the agency tasked with the recovery programme in the country immediately after the war. As part of the decentralisation policy of Comunità he wanted to take some of his production away from the concentrated industrial areas of northern Italy. He decided to build a factory in the impoverished south of the country where he would have the opportunity to put some of his ideas into practice. The site Olivetti chose for the 30,000 sq. metre building was on an elevated position overlooking the Golfo di Napoli, about 15 kilometres west of Naples,  in the volcanic area known as the Campi Flegrei.

To design his building Olivetti commissioned Luigi Cosenza (1905-1984), a Neapolitan architect and urban planner, who was a member of the Association of Organic Architecture and a Communist. This was not to be a traditional industrial shed – his brief from Olivetti was to harmonise the requirements of the factory with the landscape, introduce as much natural light and ventilation as possible, and make the most of the views across the bay. Both the plan and clever section achieved this in a spectacular way.

IMG_5699Concept sketch by Luigi Cosenza


The cross-shaped plan satisfied the production requirements while integrating the building into the sloping site. The narrow cross-section with fully glazed elevations gave employees direct views to the outside, overlooking landscaped courtyards or the sea. The glazing was shaded from the sun by projecting ledges, and extensive opening vents provided cross-ventilation from the sea breezes. Olivetti’s desire to bring nature into the workplace was masterfully achieved. It must have been wonderful to work there, particularly when you were living in the impoverished south of Italy after the devastation of WW2.



assemblaggiosumma15View of main production hall showing the elegant and simple structure designed by the engineers Adriano Galli and Pietro Ciaravolo. Full height windows (shaded where necessary) overlook landscaped gardens. High level vents bring in Mediterranean breezes. 

The factory looks more like a modern office park or university campus with its large areas of glazing overlooking gardens or the sea. The integration of the landscape into an industrial environment had never been done before, and has not been attempted again with the same success. The landscaping was designed by Pietro Porcinai to adapt the building to its setting, and a colour scheme was developed by the great Olivetti designer Marcello Nizzoli (creator of the classic Lettera 22 portable typewriter) based on the those found in nearby Pompeii. The site also incorporated a canteen (Mensa on the plan) with views over the sea, a Social Services centre (Assistenza Sociale) with medical and other facilities, a library (Biblioteca), and a training centre for apprentices.

mensapozzuoliCanteen overlooking the Bay of Naples


In line with Olivetti’s social programme a residential neighbourhood for employees was built nearby, also designed by Cosenza. This included primary and secondary schools, a church, shops, cinema and a summer camp, all set in beautiful landscaping.


The factory was hugely successful throughout the 50s and 60s, employing 1,300 workers at its opening and continually expanding to Cosenza’s pre-arranged plan. Following the company’s decline in the 1990s it has now become a technology centre, occupied by Vodafone amongst others. In these times of zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage, criticisms of Amazon, Apple, Samsung, Walmart, and many other firms for their poor working practices, tax avoidance, and vast pay differentials between bosses and workers, it is difficult now to imagine a company that would spare no expense or effort to support the physical and mental welfare of its employees. Pozzuoli was conceived by a visionary industrialist and a left-wing architect who both shared the belief that politics and architecture were inseparable. Sixty years later it still remains the most humane and beautiful factory ever built, a part of the remarkable legacy of Adriano Olivetti.

Olivetti died of a heart attack in February 1960 on the Milan to Lausanne express at the age of 58. His son, Roberto, took over and the company continued to be at the forefront of design, architecture and employee welfare for another two decades, despite increasing financial problems. It had some notable technological successes such as producing the first personal computer, the Programma 101 in 1965, but following a disastrous hostile takeover of Telecom Italia in 1999 it ended up being swallowed by the much larger company and now produces rather ordinary looking tablets and other electronic devices.

IMG_5719Current Google Earth view of the factory with later extensions to the north

Pozzuoli 3


Pozzuoli 2Views of the factory (not luxury offices!), now a technology centre


“At Pozzuoli, facing one of the most beautiful bays in the world, we built our factory. In its handsome functionalism, its carefully studied organization and its cultural and assistance services which equal those previously established in Ivrea, it bears out our aim of placing technology at the service of man.” AO in ‘Olivetti 1908-1958’


Some recent commentators and Italian documentaries have made a rather simplistic connection between Adriano Olivetti and Steve Jobs as entrepreneurs with design-led technology companies who both died at the peak of their careers. This shows a complete misunderstanding and ignorance of Olivetti’s philosophy and approach to business. Not just one of Italy’s leading industrialists or even a philanthropist, he was a socialist intellectual, urban theorist and planner, for whom good design and ‘the product’ were only a part of a much wider picture of how industry could and should contribute to the community and its workers. It is impossible to separate Olivetti the industrialist from (Italian) politics, whereas Jobs never had a serious political thought in his life.

Olivetti’s conviction that a company’s profits should be re-invested for the benefit of the community would be an alien concept to Apple, a firm with a cash pile of $200 billion achieved through rock-bottom labour costs and clever tax arrangements. As is quite evident in Walter Isaacson’s biography (and the recent Danny Boyle biopic), the Product was everything to the obsessive Jobs; his employees were secondary.

You only have to compare Cosenza’s light-filled masterpiece at Pozzuoli to the sunless interior of one of the factories making Apple products (below) to see the gulf between the two companies. The Californian management and designers at Apple will be moving into a spectacular new building by Foster Associates whereas the people who make their iPhones and iPads have had to put up with an appalling working environment which has resulted in protests and suicides.

Unsurprisingly, as businesses are usually short-term profit or dividend driven, Pozzuoli has had no influence at all on the design of industrial buildings. Sixty years later most have become the ‘source of suffering’ that Adriano Olivetti took so much care to avoid with his beautiful building in its gardens overlooking the Bay of Naples, designed to enhance the lives of his workers, rather than ‘diminish their spirit’. Looking at the factory interiors below his words at the opening of Pozzuoli in 1955 seem just as relevant today:

‘…We wanted nature to be part of the life of the factory rather than being excluded by a building which was too large, in which the windowless walls, air conditioning, and artificial light would diminish, day by day, the spirit of those working there…’

foxconn_undercover_02Foxconn factory, China

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAClothing factory, Bangladesh

Google Moto X factory, Fort WorthFlextronics factory, Texas


Photo and Illustration Credits

Photograph of 1936 Olivetti ICO factory extension – Tommaso Franzolini, founder/director of the Architectural Association Visiting School, Ivrea

Other black and white photographs, plan and section of factory, illustration of original Ivrea factory and early poster –  Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti

Coloured sketches by Luigi Cosenza, and colour photographs of factory – Archivio Luigi Cosenza/La Fabricca Olivetti a Pozzuoli book (see below)

Aerial view of factory – Google Earth 

Foxconn factory – Shanghai Evening Post undercover reporter Wang Yu

Clothing factory – Fahad Faisal  via Wikimedia Commons

Flextronics factory (Google Moto X smartphones) – Google Street View  (the factory opened in 2013 after a $25m re-fit and closed at the end of 2014!)


La Fabbrica Olivetti a Pozzuoli (Italian/English text) by Gianni and Anna Cosenza. A really excellent in depth description of the project with superb photographs. Published by Clean Edizioni ISBN 88-8497-020-2 and available from their online shop.



Most of these are in Italian which sadly demonstrates just how quickly Olivetti and Pozzuoli have been forgotten outside Italy.

The story of Pozzuoli from the Olivetti Archive:

Bios of Adriano Olivetti:

Movimento di Comunità (Adriano Olivetti Foundation):

Bio of Luigi Cosenza:

Note (1)

Olivetti wrote (unpublished notes for the Olivetti History 1908-58) that ‘Fascism had shattered my aspirations to journalism and my resistance to joining my father’s factory was weakening.’

He had become disillusioned with politics as well:

‘From 1919-1924, during my years at the Polytechnic Institute, I witnessed the failure of the socialist revolution. I can still picture the great parade of two hundred thousand people on May Day 1922 in Turin; but there was no one intellectually capable of channelling this great human impulse towards a better way of life….’ Olivetti History 1908-58

Posted in Architecture, Olivetti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Great Designers Remembered – Pier Giorgio Perotto and the first PC

This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the launch of the world’s first commercially produced personal computer, the Olivetti Programma 101, during the Business Equipment Exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in October 1965. No, it wasn’t IBM, Hewlett-Packard, or Xerox who came up with the first one, but a small team of five brilliant engineers working for Olivetti in Ivrea, northern Italy, led by Pier Giorgio Perotto (1930-2002).


At least 10 years ahead of its time, the revolutionary 101 was a genuine computer, though of course very simple by today’s standards. It could be programmed, had data storage, a display (albeit only two lamps, blue and red!), keyboard, and printer, all contained in an elegant casing designed by Mario Bellini. Perotto’s team invented the magnetic card to input data. You only had to put it on your desk and plug it in to a normal electrical socket. Perotto and Bellini had designed it to be as easy to use as a typewriter.

P101-teamProgramma 101 Design Team – Gastone Garziera back left, Giancarlo Toppi back right, Pier Giorgio Perotto front left, Giovanni De Sandre front right (Giuliano Gaiti not present)

Perotto later spoke of his vision for the Programma 101:

“I dreamed of a friendly machine to which you could delegate all those menial tasks which are prone to errors. A machine that could quietly learn and perform tasks, that could store simple data and instructions, that could be used by anyone, that would be inexpensive and the size of other office products which people used. I had to create a new language which did not need interpreters in white coats.”


Until the 101 arrived access to computers was restricted to programmers and IT specialists, using punched cards and large reels of magnetic tape, often at only booked times. These main-frame computers needed their own air-conditioned rooms with heavy duty power supplies and raised access floors. The 101 enabled normal office or academic users to operate their own computer on their desks. Relatively cheap compared with a main-frame computer at $3,200 (although equivalent to nearly $24,000 today!), the 101 proved to be a huge commercial success for Olivetti, with over 44,000 sold. NASA bought several Programma 101s for the Apollo 11 moon landing, which took up rather less space than the IBM 7090 computers in the 1960s NASA computer room above!


Olivetti had pioneered electronic computers from the mid 1950s. The Elea 9003 was Italy’s first electronic computer, and the first of a very successful series. However following the death of Adriano Olivetti in 1960 the company got into severe financial difficulties after buying the giant US Underwood company and the electronics division was sold off to General Electric early in 1965. Before then Olivetti’s son, Roberto, had given the go ahead in 1962 for the development of a small ‘desk-top’ computer This had reached an advanced stage by the time of the take-over and to avoid their project being swallowed up by GE, Perotto’s team changed some of the specification of the 101 to make it appear to be a ‘calculator’ rather than a ‘computer’ which meant the project could stay with Olivetti.

Even so, the potential for the 101 was not really appreciated by the Olivetti management once Roberto Olivetti had left the company. It was included on the Olivetti stand at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York, but rather in the background, as the firm was more interested in promoting their latest calculators. Despite this the 101 was a sensation, both the press and public astonished that something so small could be a fully working computer. Some even thought it was connected to a larger computer behind the scenes. Olivetti realised they had a huge hit on their hands, and full production and sales began in early 1966.

It wasn’t until Hewlett-Packard launched its HP9100A in 1968 that the 101 had some serious competition. However, this was technically similar to the Olivetti machine and HP ended up paying the Italians $900,000 in royalties for copying many aspects of the 101, including the magnetic card.

Outside Italy Perotto’s name is not as well known as it should be, though the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park (Milton Keynes, UK) has a Programma 101 on display, and the nickname for the 101 is the ‘Perottina’. In 1991 Perotto received the prestigious Premio Leonardo da Vinci for his development of the first personal computer. Few realise now that Olivetti was the true pioneer in personal computing, and not one of the better known US computer companies. The Programma 101 is only mentioned briefly as a ‘calculator’ (pp 212-213) in the chapter about Personal Computers in Paul Ceruzzi’s well-known book A History of Modern Computing where he claims that Altair invented the PC in 1974!

Perotto’s home town, Cavaglià, near to the Olivetti epicentre of Ivrea, in Piedmont, has a wild flower and rock garden dedicated to his memory as the ‘creator of the first personal computer’.



Programma 101 design team – Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti

Programma 101 on display at the National Museum of Computing – Wikimedia Commons, author AlisonW (October 2009)

NASA Computer Room with IBM 7090 computers – NASA archives

Giardini Perotto,  Cavaglià – Wikimedia Commons, author Sciking (May 2015)


Nothing in the UK press but La Stampa celebrated the anniversary!

An excellent description of the technical aspects of the Programma 101:

From the Storia Olivetti site (based on the Olivetti archives):

A well written blog post on the Programma 101 story:

Perotto’s son has a site devoted to his father’s memory:

Perotto wrote a book about designing the 101:

Programma 101 – L’invenzione del personal computer, una storia appassionante mai raccontata. G. Perotto. Sperling & Kupfer 1995

Posted in Computers, Italian Design, Olivetti, Personal Computers, product design | Tagged , , , , , , ,