Updated: Aug 15, 2019

The subjects of Episode 11 are Camillo and Adriano Olivetti and the origins of computing. The Avant-garde of design. What does an Italian Typewriter have to do with your Mac?

Below I have provided additional content to help you dive deeper into Episode 11 and help with your "homework" assigned at the end of the episode!

Outline of Season 1 Episode 11: CAMILLO & ADRIANO OLIVETTI:

  • An American Journey. Camillo Olivetti, Thomas Edison, and Leland Stanford

  • From the writing type to a human type. About typewriting and typography

  • From Ivrea to the world. Olivetti’s impact on architecture, design, and technology

  • Olivetti and Steve Jobs. What Apple owes to an Italian visionary

Keywords: Typewriters; design; technology; architecture; Apple; Edison; Steve Jobs


As a young graduate from the Polytechnic of Turin, Camillo Olivetti (pictured below), accompanied as a translator his professor Galileo Ferraris to the World Electrical congress held in the pavilions of the 1893 Columbian Exposition of Chicago. After the encounter with Thomas Edison in New Jersey, and the actual congress, Olivetti decided to travel to California, where he was hired in the fall of the same year at the newly founded Stanford University.

Camillo Olivetti

The 1893 Columbian Exposition celebrated the fourth centenary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. It was held in Jackson Park, Chicago, and had about 27 million visitors. Its main attraction, which was first presented on its White City, was the Ferris Wheel. Below is a view of the central pool and the expositive grounds.

Stanford University was founded in 1885 by the former California governor Leland Stanford in honor of his child, lost to typhoid. In Stanford’s intention, the university was conceived as a new kind of academic institution, merging various spheres of knowledge in multidisciplinary institutes, schools and labs. If you visit Stanford today, its spaces still reflect this original idea of inter-connectedness and cross-fertilization of disciplines. Here is an aerial view of campus.


Olivetti headquarters designed by rationalist architects Figini and Pollini in the city of Ivrea

In his early days, Olivetti manufactured instruments for electrical measurements. The company however had a rough start and moved to Milan, where the Italian Edison plant was located. After breaking with his financial partners, Olivetti returned to his hometown of Ivrea, in Piedmont, in 1908 and changed target for his business, opening the first line of Italian typewriters.

Starting in the 1930s, Olivetti began producing in house all gears for its machines, built a new headquarters for the company, designed by rationalist architects Figini and Pollini (see picture below), and reconfigured the city of Ivrea around the factory workers.

After the death of Camillo in 1943, his son Adriano took over, leading the company to global success. With its worldwide expansion in the 1950s, Olivetti commissioned key projects to top Italian architects. Marco Zanuso planned the modernist factory of Olivetti in Sao Paulo, Brazil; the BBPR firm of Milan (Barbiano di Belgioioso, Peressutti, & Rogers) designed the Olivetti store in New York, at 584 Fifth Avenue; and Carlo Scarpa reconfigured a small store in Piazza San Marco, Venice into an Olivetti showroom.

Olivetti factory in São Paulo

Olivetti store in New York

Olivetti in Venice


Olivetti M1 Typewriter

The first Olivetti typewriter, the M1 (pictured left), was presented in 1911, at the universal exposition of Turin, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Italy’s unification.

In contemporary ads, the M1 appeared in connection to Dante (as in the 1912 poster by Teodoro Ferrari) and femininity (as in a later poster by Marcello Dudovich). In the one, Dante proudly points to the M1, inviting the viewer to use it. In the other, a young lady marvels over it in adoration and wonder. Both images signify the new capacity to express the most inner inspirations and feelings granted by automated writing.

Olivetti ad (T. Ferrari)

Olivetti ad (M. Dudovich)

Under the leadership of Adriano Olivetti, the company would invest in technology and design. Olivetti would pioneer the computing age after the 1959 release of Elea 9003 (pictured right), one of the forerunners of the personal computer.

With the hiring of top designers like Marcello Nizzoli, Ettore Sottsass, and Mario Bellini, Olivetti would also sign some of the most unforgettable pieces of Italian design. Some of them are exposed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here below, in order, the Lettera 22 typewriter (1950) by Nizzoli, the Valentine portable typewriter by Sottsass (1968), and the Divisumma by Bellini (1972).

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 Contact Info:

Luca Cottini

Associate Professor of Italian Studies

Villanova University