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Sunday, 1 May 2011

100 Years of Olivetti Typewriters: April 29, 1911-April 29, 2011

Given this is my 100th post, I decided to mark the occasion by devoting it, and the next few posts, to the Centenary of the Olivetti Typewriter.
It was on April 29, 1911, that the first Olivetti typewriter was seen by the public for the first time – at the Turin World’s Fair, the Esposizione Internazionale delle Industrie e del Lavoro. (I realise I’m coming in a few days late on this, but the research took a little longer than expected.)
Olivetti put two typewriters on display in the fair's Pavilion of the Newspaper. Elsewhere at the fair, Camillo Olivetti exhibited machine tools with which he had made the typewriters. “As an industrial technician,” the Olivetti official history (Olivetti 1908-1958) says, "[Camillo] was perhaps prouder of demonstrating the ingenuity and modernity of his methods than of showing the public his finished product.”
The fair’s official catalogue listed Olivetti as, “the first and only typewriter factory in Italy” and its product as “a typewriter of the first class, patented by C.Olivetti (Italy, France, Germany, England, Austria, Switzerland and the United States). Original design, legible characters, standard keyboard, two-coloured ribbon, decimal tabulator, back-space, multiple margin adjustment, modern workmanship, absolute precision.”
The 1911 Turin fair opened on April 29 in the Parco del Valentino and closed on November 19. Less than a month after the fair ended, Olivetti won a competition to supply the Italian Ministry for the Navy with 100 typewriters.
The typewriter company which was to ultimately outlast them all had taken its first step toward assured success. And high quality Olivettis remain very much in demand. Just tonight, a salmon pink Lettera 22 portable sold on Australian eBay for $122.50, while a red MP3 was listed for $199.
Just as the Chicago World’s Fair 18 years earlier (the Columbian Exposition opened on this day in 1893) had marked the birth of the Blickensderfer 5, so the Turin fair introduced to the world the ICO (Ingegneria Camillo Olivetti) M1 – Italy’s first-ever typewriter.
Camillo Olivetti’s little red-brick factory outside his home town of Ivrea, 30 miles from Turin, had opened on October 29, 1908, with initial capital of 350,000 lire (Camillo's share of 200,000 lire represented the value of the building).
Today, Ivrea, in the Canavese region of the Piedmont in north-west Italy, is a small city of 25,000 people. But Olivetti’s history describes it as being, in 1907, “like an overgrown village”. The Olivetti factory stood in the middle of empty field half a mile from the town. Camillo’s staff comprised “four inexperienced boys”, each of whom Camillo had to teach how to hold a filing tool. The first four employees were Valentino Prelle, Giuseppe Trompetto, Pietro Bronzini and Stefano Pretti. The factory installed Brown and Sharpe automatic lathes and milling machines, selected personally on a trip to the US by Camillo.
Camillo explained the two-year delay from opening his factory to producing the first typewriter for public consumption. “My preliminary studies,” he said, “took more than two years, and it was only in the spring of 1909, after some friends and I had formed the Ing. C.Olivetti company and I had made another trip to the United States to get an idea of how similar industries functioned there, that our plant really began to operate.”
During Camillo’s absence in the US, workers started making key and typebar linkages, to Camillo’s design. In an article by Berthold Kerschbaumer, translated by Richard Polt for Richard’s The Classic Typewriter site, Berthold describes the linkages thus, “Each typebar is … individually mounted and adjustable (the M1 had no type segment). The motion of the typebars is due to a solid linkage, which upon the striking of a key turns on its own axis and transfers this motion to the type by means of a lever.”
Olivetti Builds: Modern Architecture in Ivrea(2001) describes the M1 as inspired by Underwood, but with “new attributes … a ‘faster’ machine thanks to a series of ideas that allowed rapid operation of the keys. For this to be achieved, the Olivetti engineers worked on the kinematic motion of the machine, but they also used more sophisticated materials in the moving parts, such as forged steel, which was more elastic and longer-lasting than cast iron.”
Olivetti’s history says Camillo “re-studied the technical problem of the typewriter, rejecting the idea of copying existing models. He wanted a new machine completely designed by himself in every detail.”
That the Olivetti M1 stood apart from its competitors, at least in the eyes of the Italian Ministry of the Navy, gave Camillo just the boost he needed – even if it was unexpected. “… we had the unhoped-for satisfaction of winning the competition … and from that moment began the truly marvellous progress of our industry.”
Within a year, Italy’s postal service put in another large order for Olivetti typewriters, for 50 machines. Camillo was able to open a branch in Milan in 1912, followed by others in Genoa, Rome and Naples. Camillo insisted on appointing his own sales representatives rather than employ concessionary agents. He was known to make personal contact with his customers and accompany his delivery boys.
By the time production got into full swing in 1912, the 500 square metre Olivetti factory had 20 workers, and output was 20 typewriters a week. By 1914, 100 workers were producing four machines a day. By 1920, 6000 M1s had been made. It was succeeded by the M20.

The main players in the Olivetti story I will be writing in coming posts are:
SAMUEL DAVID CAMILLO OLIVETTI: Founder and president. Born Ivrea, August 13, 1868, son of Salvador Benedict Olivetti (died 1869) and Elvira Priests Olivetti; died Biella, December 4, 1943, aged 75. (Camillo used his third name to honour his hero Camillo Cavour, one of the fathers of Italian unification.)
LUISA OLIVETTI (nee Revel): Wife of the founder. Born Ivrea, married Camillo Olivetti 1899, in Ivrea; mother of Adriano Olivetti. Other children: Dino, Elena, Laura, Massimo, Silvia (Marxer).
ADRIANO OLIVETTI: Eldest son of Camillo and Luisa, he succeeded Camillo as company president in 1938. Born Ivrea, April 11, 1901; died February 27, 1960, on a train trip from Milan to Lausanne.
TOMORROW: The Olivetti factory, a Socialist’s Utopia.


Richard P said...

Very enlightening, thank you. C. Olivetti was a genius. I look forward to the rest of this series!

shordzi said...

Looking forward to this series!