The famed Italian engineer Camillo Olivetti (1868-1943) rose to the forefront of typewriter history in the early 1900s. In 1892, after receiving a degree in electrical engineering, Camillo traveled to the United States and undertook employment as an assistant in Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering. It is widely believed that it was during this trip that he first became aware of typewriters because when he returned to Italy two years later he immediately began to practice commercial law on behalf of the Williams Typewriter Company, an American firm.
In October of 1908 Camillo relocated from Milan to his hometown of Ivrea, near Turin, and founded the limited partnership of Ing. C. Olivetti & Co., S.p.A. He once again traveled to the U.S., this time to study “modern” typewriter manufacturing and design, and returned to Ivrea in 1909 to begin producing Olivetti typewriters. The initial operations of the company were relatively modest; the company occupied a 5,400 square foot production workshop, and it is unclear whether or not any typewriters were actually produced for the first two years. It wasn’t until 1911, at the Universal Fair in Turin, that two of the very first Olivetti M1 Typewriters were presented to the public.
As a result of the successful showing at the Universal Fair, Olivetti was awarded a contract to deliver 100 of the new M1 typewriters to the Ministry of the Italian Navy. A year later he was awarded another sizable contract, this time for the Italian Postal Ministry. By mid 1914, Olivetti & Company employed 100 workers and was producing 20 machines per week.
Camillo Olivetti took typewriter design very seriously. Although the company is famous for producing flamboyant advertising posters by notable artists in later years, early typewriter models and advertising campaigns were defined by the restrained design philosophy of Camillo Olivetti himself. He once said that “a typewriter must not be a showpiece for the salon, overloaded with tastelessness. It must look sober, and at the same time work elegantly." His philosophy was apparent in the advertising poster for the M1, which was designed by Teodoro Wolf Ferrari in 1912. It featured the Italian national poet Dante Alighieri posed with the M1 and bearing a serious expression.
The manufacture of M1 typewriters virtually ceased with the advent of World War I, when the company switched manufacturing efforts over to war-time supplies. Olivetti manufactured approximately 6,000 M1 typewriters between 1911 and 1920, when the M20 was introduced. It was in the 1920s that mass production techniques became widely used. By 1929, Olivetti’s production capacity had increased to 13,000 typewriters per year. It was also in 1929 that Olivetti began opening overseas subsidiaries. The first non-Italian facility was opened in Spain, followed by facilities in Belgium, and then several South American countries.
In 1932 Adriano Olivetti , Camillo's son, became General Manager of the company. He was appointed Chairman of the company 6 years later, in 1938. It was under Adriano’s guidance that Olivetti developed into the giant which it ultimately became. While Camillo’s tastes were understated, Adriano’s were expressive and flamboyant. It was Adriano Olivetti who hired Giovanni Pintori to work in the company’s publicity department in 1936. (Pintori created not only many of the colorful advertising posters for which Olivetti was known, but also the logo of the company.)
Adriano had a strong interest in social issues in the workplace and the relationship the company had with the local communities where the factories were located. He implemented new labor organizational hierarchies and constructed employee housing, company stores and even nurseries for employees’ children. He commissioned many new factories across the globe and expanded Olivetti at an unprecedented rate.
Of course, there is a limit to how many typewriters were actually needed by the market. Adriano Olivetti recognized this, and many of his manufacturing expansions in the late 1930s and early 1940s were dedicated to the production of faxes, calculators, office furniture and new electric models of typewriters.
(Many people do not realize that the first commercial fax machines were actually introduced in 1861, many years before voice transmission was possible. The transmission of a wanted criminal’s picture from Paris to London in 1908, and of President Coolidge’s photograph from New York to London in 1924, introduced the world to the almost instant transmission of data that would become so critical to businesses in later years.)
In the 1950s Olivetti was widely considered to be the world-leader in office technology. It had grown into a global presence with 24,000 employees and 17 overseas facilities. In 1959 Olivetti acquired a majority of the holdings of Underwood, a renowned American typewriter company.
Notable product models from that time period are the Lexikon 80 (1948), the Divisumma calculator (1948), the Lettera 22 portable (1950) and the Lexicon 80E (1955), which was Olivetti’s first electric typewriter model. The success of many of these models was due, in part at least, to the beautiful design features. In the 20-year span between 1940 and 1960, Olivetti industrial design was led by Marcello Nizzoli. It was Nizzoli who was responsible for the design of the Lexicon 80 and the Lettera 22 portable.
In the 1960s, Mario Bellini and Ettore Sottsass directed Olivetti design efforts. Bellini was responsible for the design of several popular calculator models (the Programma 101 and the Logos 68) as well as the TCV-250 video display terminal (in 1966). Sottsass designed the Tekne 3 typewriter (1958), the Elea 9003 computer (1959), the Praxis 48 typewriter (1964), and the famous pop-art design icon, the Valentine portable (1969).
Olivetti attempted to transition into a computer manufacturing company in the early 1960s, and produced some of the earliest transistor mainframe systems. Low sales and financial instability led the company to halt mainframe efforts in 1964. In the early 1980s Olivetti began releasing personal computers which were clones of IBM PCs. These personal computers, especially the Olivetti M24, were very successful in Europe. However, Olivetti failed to advance new products when the Intel 386 CPU chip became available, and quickly lost market shares to faster, 386-based products. Olivetti eventually sold its computer business in 1997.
Today Olivetti survives as a subsidiary of Telecom Italia, known as Olivetti Tecnost, and sells office equipment. The company has sales offices in 83 countries.