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).

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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.”

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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!

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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’.

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PHOTO CREDITS

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)

LINKS

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

http://www.lastampa.it/2015/10/14/tecnologia/olivetti-MQlYiMynKSxdUZsWdrftsI/pagina.html

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

http://www.curtamania.com/curta/database/brand/olivetti/Olivetti%20Programma%20101/

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

http://www.storiaolivetti.it/percorso.asp?idPercorso=630

A well written blog post on the Programma 101 story:

http://royal.pingdom.com/2012/08/28/the-first-pc-from-1965/

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

http://www.piergiorgioperotto.it/piergiorgioperotto.aspx

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

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