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The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti: IBM, the CIA, and the Cold War Conspiracy to Shut Down Production of the World's First Desktop Computer

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The never-before-told true account of the design and development of the first desktop computer by the world's most famous high-styled typewriter company, more than a decade before the arrival of the Osborne 1, the Apple 1, the first Intel microprocessor, and IBM's PC5150. The human, business, design, engineering, cold war, and tech story of how the Olivetti company came to The never-before-told true account of the design and development of the first desktop computer by the world's most famous high-styled typewriter company, more than a decade before the arrival of the Osborne 1, the Apple 1, the first Intel microprocessor, and IBM's PC5150. The human, business, design, engineering, cold war, and tech story of how the Olivetti company came to be, how it survived two world wars and brought a ravaged Italy back to life, how after it mastered the typewriter business with the famous "Olivetti touch," it entered the new, fierce electronics race; how its first desktop compter, the P101, came to be; how, within eighteen months, it had caught up with, and surpassed, IBM, the American giant that by then had become an arm of the American government, developing advanced weapon systems; Olivetti putting its own mainframe computer on the market with its desktop prototype, selling 40,000 units, including to NASA for its lunar landings. How Olivetti made inroads into the US market by taking control of Underwood of Hartford CT as an assembly plant for Olivetti's own typewriters and future miniaturized personal computers; how a week after Olivetti purchased Underwood, the US government filed an antitrust suit to try to stop it; how Adriano Olivetti, the legendary idealist, socialist, visionary, heir to the company founded by his father, built the company into a fantastical dynasty--factories, offices, satellite buildings spread over more than fifty acres--while on a train headed for Switzerland in 1960 for supposed meetings and then to Hartford, never arrived, dying suddenly of a heart attack at fifty-eight . . . how eighteen months later, his brilliant young engineer, who had assembled Olivetti's superb team of electronic engineers, was killed, as well, in a suspicious car crash, and how the Olivetti company and the P101 came to its insidious and shocking end.


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The never-before-told true account of the design and development of the first desktop computer by the world's most famous high-styled typewriter company, more than a decade before the arrival of the Osborne 1, the Apple 1, the first Intel microprocessor, and IBM's PC5150. The human, business, design, engineering, cold war, and tech story of how the Olivetti company came to The never-before-told true account of the design and development of the first desktop computer by the world's most famous high-styled typewriter company, more than a decade before the arrival of the Osborne 1, the Apple 1, the first Intel microprocessor, and IBM's PC5150. The human, business, design, engineering, cold war, and tech story of how the Olivetti company came to be, how it survived two world wars and brought a ravaged Italy back to life, how after it mastered the typewriter business with the famous "Olivetti touch," it entered the new, fierce electronics race; how its first desktop compter, the P101, came to be; how, within eighteen months, it had caught up with, and surpassed, IBM, the American giant that by then had become an arm of the American government, developing advanced weapon systems; Olivetti putting its own mainframe computer on the market with its desktop prototype, selling 40,000 units, including to NASA for its lunar landings. How Olivetti made inroads into the US market by taking control of Underwood of Hartford CT as an assembly plant for Olivetti's own typewriters and future miniaturized personal computers; how a week after Olivetti purchased Underwood, the US government filed an antitrust suit to try to stop it; how Adriano Olivetti, the legendary idealist, socialist, visionary, heir to the company founded by his father, built the company into a fantastical dynasty--factories, offices, satellite buildings spread over more than fifty acres--while on a train headed for Switzerland in 1960 for supposed meetings and then to Hartford, never arrived, dying suddenly of a heart attack at fifty-eight . . . how eighteen months later, his brilliant young engineer, who had assembled Olivetti's superb team of electronic engineers, was killed, as well, in a suspicious car crash, and how the Olivetti company and the P101 came to its insidious and shocking end.

30 review for The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti: IBM, the CIA, and the Cold War Conspiracy to Shut Down Production of the World's First Desktop Computer

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dale Bentz

    An interesting read of the trials and successes of the Olivetti dynasty in Italy. While Secrest succeeds as a historian and author, however, she fails as a detective. The conjectures concerning the deaths of key members of the Olivetti team are lacking in any new facts that would elevate them beyond the class of pure speculation. Perhaps one day, the true stories will be uncovered and presented in a new book. Hope so!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    Did you know that in the 1960’s Olivetti was number 103 on Fortune Magazine’s list of the 200 largest industrial companies? That it spanned and the globe with 54,000 employees? That it had developed a microcomputer in 1964-65 (10 years before Steve Jobs) and showed it at the 1964 NY World’s Fair and that NASA bought one of the 44,000 units that sold for $55,000/machine and used it for the moon landing? Neither did I. This book attempts to interpret this company and its demise. Unfortunately cont Did you know that in the 1960’s Olivetti was number 103 on Fortune Magazine’s list of the 200 largest industrial companies? That it spanned and the globe with 54,000 employees? That it had developed a microcomputer in 1964-65 (10 years before Steve Jobs) and showed it at the 1964 NY World’s Fair and that NASA bought one of the 44,000 units that sold for $55,000/machine and used it for the moon landing? Neither did I. This book attempts to interpret this company and its demise. Unfortunately content sprawls. It is part biography (individual, family and corporate) and 20th century Italian history with pages on architecture and American individuals, companies and the CIA. Given that the book is only 265 pages, none of this is covered in depth. The company was ahead of its time, not only it its products and their packaging but its views on management and employee well being. Pages 228 and 229 list ten often cited reasons for the demise of Olivetti. At this point the reader knows a bit about each, but enough to evaluate most points. For instance, the Underwood acquisition is listed as a reason, but there was no analysis of the why Olivetti could not use Underwood’s distribution network as planned. Was the company really on the verge of bankruptcy? One clear issue is that the untimely deaths of its CEO and chief engineer (deaths that look more and more suspicious as time goes on) were major losses. Olivetti had breakthrough technology and a foothold in the US through its Underwood purchase. Did the company’s potential business with Russia and China, raise concerns with the CIA? Did Allen Dulles (often alluded to in the book) have a role in the deaths of Adriano Olivetti and Mario Tchou? Was the company betrayed from the inside by those who profited from selling off its premier technology? (Currently Telecom Italia has launched Olivetti branded products.) Meryle Sechrest has provided a lot of information but it needs fleshing out. I expect that this story is too big for a single book. I look forward to fully researched separate biographies (in English) of Adriano Olivetti, the Olivetti Family and the company.

  3. 5 out of 5

    JDK1962

    I had a special interest in this, since I lived and worked in Ivrea in 1989, at an Olivetti joint venture company. Had I not, I doubt I would have finished this. Despite the title, the majority of this book is simply a history of Olivetti, and on that score, I found it interesting. Three chapters before the end, the story turns to the P101 (which the author terms "the world's first desktop computer", which is a pretty weak contention...maybe the world's first programmable calculator, but anyway) I had a special interest in this, since I lived and worked in Ivrea in 1989, at an Olivetti joint venture company. Had I not, I doubt I would have finished this. Despite the title, the majority of this book is simply a history of Olivetti, and on that score, I found it interesting. Three chapters before the end, the story turns to the P101 (which the author terms "the world's first desktop computer", which is a pretty weak contention...maybe the world's first programmable calculator, but anyway), and Olivetti falling upon hard times. Then the last chapter comes along, which is pretty much all conspiracy theory, in which, based on very little (if any) actual hard or non-circumstantial evidence, the author weaves a theory about how a deep dark conspiracy of US and Italian government and economic forces conspired to put a boot on Olivetti's throat and keep it barely limping along for another few decades. Suffice it to say that I didn't buy any of the conspiracy theory. One would have to completely discard Occam's Razor (as well as the saying "never ascribe to malice that which may be adequately explained by stupidity") to buy the final chapter. Italian economics/bureaucracy, mediocre management of a family company, and internal factions fighting for turf were more than sufficient to doom the P101.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Federico Lucifredi

    A very well-written communal biography of the Olivetti family, a group of industrialists that built a successful technology company in a relatively poor agricultural area nested at the foothills of the alps. The author chronicles the rise of the company as manufacturers of typewriters and mechanical calculators, all the way to their eventual takeover of Underwood in the 1960s, then the largest manufacturer of typewriters worldwide. The latter third of the book is not so successful. The author has A very well-written communal biography of the Olivetti family, a group of industrialists that built a successful technology company in a relatively poor agricultural area nested at the foothills of the alps. The author chronicles the rise of the company as manufacturers of typewriters and mechanical calculators, all the way to their eventual takeover of Underwood in the 1960s, then the largest manufacturer of typewriters worldwide. The latter third of the book is not so successful. The author has a great track record as a biographer, and seems to lack a clear understanding of business cycles in technology. Olivetti was caught on the wrong side of the transition between mechanical and electronic typewriters, as most successful companies do, by the the inertia of sticking to what is already working (we call this "innovator's dilemma"). While the P101 and other remarkable inventions (the latter M24 computer was a success of its own, propelling the company to #3 in PC sales worldwide in 1986), there is nothing intrinsically odd in the failure of a technology development to reach market success: in fact, one could argue that failure to market (or to succeed in the market) is more the rule than the exception. Instead of a straightforward explanation, the author chooses the conspiracy theory version: the CIA killed the CEO of the company on a train ride to Switzerland (he died of a heart attack), and that similarly the death of a senior engineer was orchestrated and not accidental (he died in a car crash). Not even a shred of proof is offered, only vague statements of "may have known", and IBM "had to have been just as involved," again supplied with zero evidence. The author suggests that General Patton was assassinated in car accident orchestrated by the intelligence service, and so, just as well, clearly the same is possible for the brilliant engineer. This level of conjecturing is hardly worth of serious writing, or the reader's time. Conspiracy theories may help sell books, and as Ben Downing points out in his spot-on WSJ review of the book, other countries are way ahead of the US in their appetite for conspiracies as an explanation for everything, but while the family and industrial history of Olivetti is interesting and well researched, the spy story does not stand on its own. The Olivettis made some business mistakes, lost control of their company, yet the re-capitalized company successfully continued for almost 40 years after these events — extraordinary foul play claims requires extraordinary evidence, and despite the tantalizing title, there is none to be found in this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    John Cooper

    Meryle Secrest has written highly acclaimed biographies of artists and architects including Modigliani, Bernstein, Wright, and Berenson, and now in her eighties, she turns to the brilliant Italian industrialists Adriano Olivetti. But instead of writing a straight biography, she posits a conspiracy in which American intelligence services, concerned about powerful minicomputers becoming available to Cold War enemies, assassinate the head of Olivetti's desktop computing project, and then Olivetti h Meryle Secrest has written highly acclaimed biographies of artists and architects including Modigliani, Bernstein, Wright, and Berenson, and now in her eighties, she turns to the brilliant Italian industrialists Adriano Olivetti. But instead of writing a straight biography, she posits a conspiracy in which American intelligence services, concerned about powerful minicomputers becoming available to Cold War enemies, assassinate the head of Olivetti's desktop computing project, and then Olivetti himself. While this is not entirely implausible given the history of American Cold War interventionism in Cuba, Guatemala, Chile, Iran, Zaire, and many other places, neither is it, despite Secrest's efforts, entirely convincing. In fact, she would have done much better to fold her idea into a more standard biography of Olivetti—the company, the dynasty, or the man, all of which are (really!) interesting enough to support that project. Those histories have been written, I believe, in Italian, but not to my knowledge translated to English. Until they are, this book will have to do as an introduction to Adriano Olivetti and his remarkable vision of a humane and democratic industrial society, which he successfully nursed through the Fascist era and the second world war into the cold war period. Now the immense Olivetti complex in Ivrea stands mostly unoccupied and one of the most interesting socio-industrial projects of the twentieth century is in danger of being forgotten. If only we had a chronicler who finds that story the most interesting one. Meanwhile, this book, despite its flaws, is well worth the read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    I happened upon this book and the title caught my eye. Computer history, cold war, spooks? Sign me up. But the title promises much and this is an example of overselling something that barely fits said title. The book doesn't really know what it wants to be about. Is it the Olivetti family? The company? Typewriters? Or early computers? Most of it is Italian soap opera. We get to see the drama of who is married to whom, who is having affairs and illegitimate children. This is simply noise, as why d I happened upon this book and the title caught my eye. Computer history, cold war, spooks? Sign me up. But the title promises much and this is an example of overselling something that barely fits said title. The book doesn't really know what it wants to be about. Is it the Olivetti family? The company? Typewriters? Or early computers? Most of it is Italian soap opera. We get to see the drama of who is married to whom, who is having affairs and illegitimate children. This is simply noise, as why do stories about the senior Olivetti getting the Swiss babysitter pregnant have to do with computers? Now, I see this as an interesting story about a company that took care of its workers. The Olivetti company was way ahead of its time in treating people like people, not widgets. You could do a whole book just on the culture of a family run shop & how that in turn lead to all kinds of innovations. But no, soap opera. The very last part of the book we get to learn about the PC, which really isn't one. Its more an advanced calculation machine. Neat, but not up to the title. Conspiracy? IBM got military money to develop its computers. Olivetti couldn't take military contracts, so while scrappy and pushing boundaries, they didn't get deep pocketed funding. The whole thing is a let down as the premise never pans out and a lot of leaps of logic of why their take on computers ultimately failed. It isn't worth the time to find the small nuggets, that could be boiled down into 2-3 pages. Everything else is Italian soap opera.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Craig Evans

    A family business growing and changing. World War 2. Trysts and deceit. Mechanical and electronic engineering. Marriages and divorces. Geopolitical machinations. These set some of the background and content for the authors exploration of the Olivetti corporation, once one of the largest manufacturers of business machines in the world. A fascinating read, with much family history and the culmination of great thought and activity in engineering, social activism, art, design, and architecture. It di A family business growing and changing. World War 2. Trysts and deceit. Mechanical and electronic engineering. Marriages and divorces. Geopolitical machinations. These set some of the background and content for the authors exploration of the Olivetti corporation, once one of the largest manufacturers of business machines in the world. A fascinating read, with much family history and the culmination of great thought and activity in engineering, social activism, art, design, and architecture. It did take quite a bit of time to get through the fascinating backstory of the family and business before one got to the last chapter, the one which really got into the gritty information that provided the books subtitle. The fact that what can be considered the worlds first desktop computer was created a decade before Apple and IBM's endeavours is an eye-opener. And given the cold-war sentimatilities of that era there is likely more to the story than is presented. Kudos to the author for her investigation and the process that generated this text. (there are several authors and books mentioned in the Acknowledgements that appear to be worthwhile in seeking out for further exploration of the information.) Disclosure: I received the advance copy via a give-away on GoodReads.com

  8. 5 out of 5

    J

    I honestly thought this was a book I probably wouldn’t like, but I’m glad I decided to read it. Fascinating story. The story not only contained Cold War history but also World War 2 history as it pertained to Olivetti and Italy. There are shocking bits of information on IBM and Hitler as well as Fiat and the role the US government played in Italy post World War 2 through the Cold War. While the book seems to be well researched, it concludes with conjecture/conspiracy theory. This doesn’t necessa I honestly thought this was a book I probably wouldn’t like, but I’m glad I decided to read it. Fascinating story. The story not only contained Cold War history but also World War 2 history as it pertained to Olivetti and Italy. There are shocking bits of information on IBM and Hitler as well as Fiat and the role the US government played in Italy post World War 2 through the Cold War. While the book seems to be well researched, it concludes with conjecture/conspiracy theory. This doesn’t necessarily appear to be the author’s fault. It’s more in the line of a mystery that will never be solved because evidence is held captive in history. I debated between 3 or 4 stars and decided on 3 because the organizational structure made the story somewhat challenging to follow at times. For one, the book doesn’t follow a linear timeline. For another, there are many people introduced throughout the book. Each time a new person is introduced, you feel like you’re reading a mini-biography of the person’s life that interrupts the natural flow of the story until you discover how the person fits into Olivetti’s story. Still, the information presented in the book is interesting enough that I would choose to read it again.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sean S

    Having little background on Olivetti, I found myself simultaneously intrigued and disappointed by this book. The premise of the story is that Olivetti invented the first PC as we generally recognize the term, and there was some nefarious intelligence play to shut it down. The reality of this book is as follows: * haphazard background on various parts of the Olivetti clan, with weak writing mixed in * eventually getting to the PC part and realizing the machine was cutting edge but not the PC we thi Having little background on Olivetti, I found myself simultaneously intrigued and disappointed by this book. The premise of the story is that Olivetti invented the first PC as we generally recognize the term, and there was some nefarious intelligence play to shut it down. The reality of this book is as follows: * haphazard background on various parts of the Olivetti clan, with weak writing mixed in * eventually getting to the PC part and realizing the machine was cutting edge but not the PC we think of * random speculation which adds nothing in the way of credibility in the final chapters as to why he died on the train that day Skip the book and Google the matter. You will get there quicker with the same results.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Harley

    I did not finish this book. I read up to page 73 and had to stop. The cover and description are beautiful. There is so much excitement and intrigue in both. However, it feels like Meryle and her marketing team have two different agendas. The book is written in a very dry tone and discusses politics and architecture quite a bit. And while these both have a part in the main story, I felt as if I were reading through a bunch of Wikipedia articles. I wanted to keep reading, but increasingly found my I did not finish this book. I read up to page 73 and had to stop. The cover and description are beautiful. There is so much excitement and intrigue in both. However, it feels like Meryle and her marketing team have two different agendas. The book is written in a very dry tone and discusses politics and architecture quite a bit. And while these both have a part in the main story, I felt as if I were reading through a bunch of Wikipedia articles. I wanted to keep reading, but increasingly found myself dreading reading more of this book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nick Dye

    This book is incredibly clunky. It’s bogged down by dense writing. It’s a textbook example of never judging a book by its cover. You do not get to the story about Olivetti’s first desktop computer until you’re in the last quarter of the book. This book is mainly about the Olivetti family, not the computer and the CIA, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t sold as a mainly a story about the computer arms race. Very disappointing.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Margit

    Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review. This book was basically a hodgepodge history of the Olivetti family: what they manufactured, where they had offices, who lived where and with whom, who they liked, what their politics were, and so forth. As a dynastic history, it was barely adequate. As a book about the history of desktop computers, it was a failure. If there was a conspiracy, I must have skipped over it because I don't remember reading about one.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    It took 2/3 of the book to get to the main scandal, which was a bit frustrating while reading. I enjoyed learning about the evolution to the first desktop computer, however this book focused much more on the background leading up to that point than anticipated. Overall, I did enjoy it, but it’s not something I would re-read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hank Stone

    Found this on library shelf. Disappointing. I picked it up because I actually used and programmed the Olivetti computer in the title... but the writer rambles about the history of the company with endless anecdotes and no real point. The conspiracy theory is unconvincing.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Zeljko

    3* for the parts about Olivetti as the pre-apple Apple and Adriano Olivetti as the 20th century socialist Steve Jobs. 2* for the at times flat-earther style of prose.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Baker

    If you read this book because of its subtitle, you will be disappointed. The majority of the book deals with the rise of Olivetti, and the eccentric family of the same name. It’s a great story.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sue Whitt

    If you're interested in the origins of electronic computers or in international espionage, you should read this book.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jacques Poitras

    Not as advertised on the jacket copy. The "mysterious affair" takes up about 30 pages of this book and is told in a confusing way that requires several leaps of logic to believe.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Pat

    Very interesting read. I recommend this book!

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    This book had amazing potential: early computers, Cold War intrigue, socialist industrialists, typewriters. But the author doesn't get to the main topic of the book until the last couple chapters, and by then you realize she doesn't have any evidence for her thesis.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Fred Peters

  22. 4 out of 5

    Carol

  23. 4 out of 5

    Meril

  24. 5 out of 5

    David L.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jason Sherron

  27. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Bisset

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ặĥɱặd Ặł Ĥặśśặŋ

  29. 5 out of 5

    tpmyers

  30. 5 out of 5

    Michael

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