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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. 4 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 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. 4 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 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

    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 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.

  5. 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 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

  6. 4 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 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.

  7. 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 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.

  8. 4 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.

  9. 4 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.

  10. 4 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sue Whitt

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

  13. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    Very interesting read. I recommend this book!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Carol

  15. 4 out of 5

    Meril

  16. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  17. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Bisset

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ặĥɱặd Ặł Ĥặśśặŋ

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jackie Williams

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jakob

  23. 4 out of 5

    Dayrel

  24. 5 out of 5

    Loraine Hunziker

  25. 4 out of 5

    John Dupuis

  26. 4 out of 5

    Logan Braman

  27. 5 out of 5

    Richard

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rob Cummins

  29. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

  30. 5 out of 5

    Dylan Posa

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