The “first national manufacturer of typewriters” was established long ago in 1908 and from its beginnings in the world of Italian enterprise distinguished itself for its attention to technology and innovation, inspired design, an international presence and its sensitivity to the social aspects of work. This is all due to founder Camillo Olivetti and his son Adriano, who succeeded within a brief period in giving the family business the characteristics of a modern industrial group, and placing themselves among the leaders in the market for office appliances.
Nevertheless, in the 1950s Olivetti invested in electronic technology with important results: thus was born the mythical Lettera 22 typewriter, the representation of a perfect storm of engineering designed to be at once light, efficient, and durable.
This symbol of typewriting and writing in general was born in 1950 in the intuitive mind of Marcello Nizzoli, an Italian designer who had collaborated with Olivetti since 1938. More than just an object, the Lettera 22 is a symbol of elegance and functionality, thanks to its clean and compact lines, the keyboard flush within the frame, the embedded roller with only the knob sticking out, and the extremely ergonomic form of the line space lever.
It was an object that fully responded to the demands of transportability and space saving for its users, thanks also to the handled (and handy) carrying case that came with it; in 1959 this convenience and beauty earned it recognition by a commission of 100 designers from the Illinois Technological Institute as the best design product of the last 100 years. Today this Italian style icon is part of the permanent design collection of New York’s MOMA and the indefatigable traveling companion of numerous illustrious writers and journalists, something which they have not renounced even with the advent of electronic writing. This is the case, for example, with Günter Grass, who named his blue Lettera 22 “Grandfather’s lover” in a poem dedicated to the famous Olivetti typewriter, while Francis Ford Coppola and Cormac McCarthy prefer the subsequent Lettera 32: the model used by McCarthy was sold at auction in 2009 for 254,500 dollars. There is unconditional love for that unmistakable clickety-click that has in fact been reproduced in an iPad app launched a short while ago by Tom Hanks.
In 1969, another myth was ready to add to the Olivetti story: the Valentine model, which, thanks to Ettore Sottsass’ transgressive design has also entered into MOMA’ permanent collections. Its distinctive characteristic is its vivid red color (indeed known as “Valentine red”), and if the product’s quality is by now agreed upon, its success was also assured by high-level publicity campaigns with the participation of famous graphic artists, photographers, poets and writers. Once again Olivetti demonstrated far-reaching vision, setting the bases for modern branding and entrepreneurship by creating cult products, to the point where in 1988 they resumed production on a limited-series basis in Mexico aimed at collectors as well as effective users.
The disappearance of Adriano Olivetti in 1960 and the heavy weight of investments slowed down the transition to electronics, but despite this, Olivetti gave birth to the era of the digital revolution almost 15 years before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates with Program 101.
The term “personal computer” had yet to be pronounced and the idea of keeping a computer on the desktop was still a mirage, but a genial group of engineers achieved a veritable miracle, and P101 was officially launched in the market on October 14, 1965 in New York, with clamorous success.
The first clients in line were the scientists at NASA, who bought 45 models in order to compile lunar maps and elaborate the trajectory of the Apollo 11 mission that would land a man on the moon in 1969, while the New York Journal-American wrote: “We might see a computer in every office before we see two cars in every garage. With Program 101, a manager can now have a secretary that calculates the expenses of all the divisions of a company with instant speed and on his desk.”
NBC began using five Program 101s that November to calculate the results of the elections they transmitted to millions of television viewers in New York and New Jersey. The mechanical age was over and the future belonged to electronics.