Olivetti may be the most important technology company that Americans have never heard of. The company developed the first fully transistorized computer in the 1950’s. This book tells the history of the company, from its founding as a manufacturer of electrical tools, to its heyday as a maker of typewriters (it acquired Underood, a famous American typewriter company), to its decline after being acquired by GE.
In order to get his business off the ground, founder Camillo Olivetti first had to train his workforce:
He was seriously thinking of starting his own business. The business climate was favorable and he had lots of wonderful ideas. The problem was that most potential workers in Ivrea and its immediate surroundings scarcely knew what electricity was, never mind how to use it. As a student of Ferraris’s, Camillo was aware that a tool to measure the voltage of direct and alternating currents was available. It was a mercury motor meter that was easy to read. But that was only the beginning; many more such instruments were needed and he was probably the only man for miles who knew what they were and how to invent them. His solution was the essence of simplicity; he would start a course and hold classes in his villa in Monte Novale. He was immediately assailed with the argument that farmworkers could not learn, would not learn, lacked the necessary intelligence to master this new calling. (p. 23)
At the time, industrial work was not respected in Italy. Camillo took objection to this:
He said, “We are still the progeny of the [ancient] Romans who left all industrial work to their servants and freedmen and held it in such low esteem, that while the names of the most mediocre proconsuls, poets and actors that ever amused the decaying Roman civilization were handed down to us, the names of the supreme engineers who built roads, aqueducts and the great monuments of the Roman Empire were never divulged.” (p. 27)
The company faced challenges during WWI and WWII, including shortages of workers and supplies, but its factories were never bombed. This may be in part to heir Adriano Olivetti’s overtures to the OSS, a precursor of the CIA.
The book uses Adriano’s suspicious death as both a way to engage reader interest and a launching point for a conspiracy theory involving the CIA and IBM. However, this intrigue is largely unnecessary: the history of the company is lively enough without cloak-and-dagger routines.