Adriano Olivetti. The power of a dream – A missed opportunity.

We are happy to publish Silvio Hènin’s article on the fiction dedicated to Adriano Olivetti and produced by RAI Fiction. The fiction was directed by Michele Soavi (Adriano’s grandson) and broadcasted by RAI 1 on October 28 and 29, 2013. After a few months from airing, the choirs of consent have subsided and there is space for a critical analysis of the miniseries. The article points out how the story (certainly inspired by the freest historical reconstruction and perhaps tainted by a hint of ideology) privileges daring hypothesis of conspiracy to very clear facts, not even too difficult to ascertain. To this the author refers when he speaks of ‘missed opportunity’: the loss of a good chance to rebuild in a realistic way  -without ignoring the needs of the audience – a piece of the history of science, business and politics of Italy.

While reading a brief review by Antonio D’Orrico of the TV-film “Adriano Olivetti. The power of a dream” produced by RAI Fiction, I was amazed by some of the statements bordering on the ridiculous, including the one that the computer Olivetti Elea 9003 would have been “the first electronic computer in the world” and that “the Americans did not want the Italians to develop the first computer, gaining industry leadership … at the expense of General Electric and IBM’s (sic)”. I then decided to watch the movie to understand what was to be attributed to the original work and what to D’Orrico – great literary critic, but certainly not a historian of technology.

The movie is even worse!

The scene opens with the death of Adriano Olivetti during a train journey from Italy to Switzerland, but these images are alternated with a shady character who seems to follow furtively the Italian businessman. The assembly suggests that the stranger has something to do with Adriano’s death. The following scene takes place in the meeting room of some American secret agency (CIA? NSA?) where military officers, secret agents, and representatives of the United States government sit around a table. At the meeting someone says that the Olivetti is working on the construction of the “first transistor computer” and that this “electronic brain is a risk” not only for the American computer industry, but also for the “strategic defense of the United States”. So Adriano Olivetti must be checked and if necessary stopped by any means, even the most extreme. An undercover secret agent, the comely damsel who was saved by Adriano Olivetti during the war, is then sent to spy the Italian industrial. The two episodes (three and a half hours in total) repeatedly return to the scene in the conference room where the dialog contains phrases like “making the electronic computer before us, [Olivetti] challenged us in a strategic sector and beat us’. Even the sequences that take place in Ivrea (where the Olivetti headquarter was based – TN) shows Mario Tchou, the project director, and Roberto Olivetti, Adriano’s son, exclaiming “we beat them all: IBM, General Electric… we will be the only ones in the world to have something like this”.  It is a logical consequence that the wicked evil empire, the Yankee military-industrial complex, resorts to extreme solutions sending a killer to kill the main culprit (and maybe even his right arm, Mr Tchou). A couple of funny typos are worth mentioning: at one point Adriano speaks of ‘endorphins’, substances that will be discovered and baptized more than twenty years after his death; the train which goes up to the end of the story is to Aosta, where there will be a “coincidence with the international trains to Geneva and Lausanne (sic)”. Could it be that in 1960 there was a railway tunnel under Mont Blanc? In the real world Adriano spent the night in Milan and left from there for Lausanne, along the far more real Simplon line.

The work, directed by Michele Soavi, is more fantasy than fiction; a good example of a historical SF. Result on the audience? An acquaintance starts saying: “Have you seen what those bastards instead. They did kill Adriano Olivetti, otherwise the Olivetti would make them fail “and maybe we would not know today’s recession and unemployment” I add wryly to myself. But I know that debunking myths and legends is a daunting task, especially when the other party ends the discussion with a terse “the television said” or “I read it on the Internet”. It’s useless to remember your acquaintance that the disclaimer in the end credits is “All characters, places or events appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”. Nothing is closer to truth: the film has little to do with reality, but whoever reads the credits?

The Elea 9003, finished in 1959, was certainly not ‘the first electronic computer in the world’. ENIAC, the first of these machines, was completed in the U.S. in 1945 and in the following decade many other examples quickly followed in America as in Europe, Australia and even in the Soviet Union. There are also two precursors of ENIAC: The ABC Atanasoff (1942) and the Colossus of Bletchley Park (1944) but they were not programmable and today we would not call them computers. In 1958 there were already more than two thousand depending programmable ‘electronic calculators’ in the world, three hundred of them in Europe and about twenty only in Italy. The film says that it was the first ‘transistor’ electronic computer (all the previous ones adopted vacuum tubes) but even this statement is not correct. Transistor computers had been experienced since the mid-50s in Europe and the USA. Even if we limit the class to those produced industrially the Elea 9003 was among the first, not the first. Between 1958 and ’60 the IBM 1401, 7070 and 7090, the Philco TRANSAC-2000,  and the Siemens 2000 were launched and each of them was entirely transistor-based. In 1960 an IBM 7070 was installed at the headquarters of RAI in Rome – simultaneously with  the delivery of the first Elea 9003 to the Marzotto Industries – the year after three more were installed at the Dalmine Industries, the Banca Popolare di Novara and the Banco di Napoli. The correct definition of the Elea 9003 would then be ‘the first transistor-based electronic computer produced Italy’. On closer inspection, the run of ‘primacy’ at all costs remains a sterile pastime, especially in a dynamic technological field and when it comes to a few months of difference between one product and another. What are we referring to in order to determine who was the ‘first’? The end of the construction, the testing phase, the date of the official dedication, the first unit sold, the first practical task carried out by the machine? It would be like crowning the winner of a race where the rules are not shared and you do not even know where is the finish line.

As to the alleged dangers of Olivetti for the IBM empire, just think that in those years the American company was already in a dominant position and invested almost half of its net income in research and development, a sum that Italian industry could not even imagine. The investment will enable IBM to win 70% of the world market and outperform other American and European companies, and that without resorting to the murder of the competitors! Among other things, the president of IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., was a sincere admirer of Adriano Olivetti and its innovative ideas, especially when it comes to industrial design and business management. Should a ‘bad’ be necessary for the fictionalized story, the real enemies of the Ivrea company are to look into the Italian political, financial and industrial establishment. To be fair, the film talks about this but prefers to insist repeatedly on the ‘made in USA’ spy plot. As for the suggestion that the initiative Olivetti was a danger to the ‘strategic defense’ of the United States , it is not worth to make comments.

There is no doubt that it was a great Elea 9003 computer, equipped with innovative and original solutions especially for a country that had no experience in the field; just as there is no doubt that Adriano Olivetti’s entrepreneurial vision and Mario Tchou’s technical and managerial capabilities remain a beacon of light in the horizon of the Italian industry. The untimely death of both in a little over a year (Adriano Olivetti was struck by a heart attack or a stroke perhaps caused by stress accumulated in the previous months, and Tchou died in an automobile accident on the Milan – Turin highway, at the time with two lanes only and no traffic-island) was one of the causes that led to the sale of the Electronics Division to the American General Electric, but to reduce the problem to these factors alone is a naive simplification. It may perhaps be said that, if the two main architects were not dead, Olivetti could have achieved such results that would allow it not only to survive and maintain competitiveness in the IT sector, but to undermine American dominance, in particular that of IBM? What has happened in the computer industry in other European countries suggests that it would be rather unlikely. In the United Kingdom the production of modern electronic computers was undertaken in 1949, even before the United States, but less than twenty years afterward the nine companies active in the field had been reduced to only one, the ICL, which was doomed to a gradual decline and its ultimate sale to the Japanese Fujitsu. In the continental Europe the same the same fate struck Siemens, Philips, and Bull (also sold to General Electric), despite consuming national plans and EU subsidies and government incentives. As far as the many and complex reasons that led to this outcome are concerned, I refer to the extensive literature that was published on the subject, but it must be remembered that in 1964, Olivetti’s Electronics Division had already accumulated a loss of eighty billion Lire (today eight hundred million Euros), despite the forty 9003 Elea and the 150 Elea 4001 and Elea 6001 (smaller models) already been delivered to customers.

To conclude, even if the film is just a fiction, a minimum likelihood would not have been appreciable and would have made much honor to a deserving character as Adriano Olivetti and his company. A missed opportunity to make good history of Italian industry, even keeping a popular entertainment style. Dan Brawn would have been better documented.

Silvio Hénin


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