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 onthis 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 Olivettiâ€™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, Italyâ€™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.
100 Years of Olivetti Typewriters: A Socialists' Utopia
On May 1, May Day – International Workers’ Day – it is entirely appropriate that we should salute Camillo Olivetti for his pronounced, lifelong socialist leanings. Camillo was not just, as Richard Polt points out, a genius among typewriter manufacturers, he was also very much a man of his word, ever true to his social and political beliefs. The social welfare programs he introduced at Olivetti factories, which were to be adopted and enhanced by his progressivist son Adriano, when Adriano took over the company in 1938, are truly praiseworthy. Olivetti was not just an industrial relations trendsetter – more to the point, an example setter - in Italy, but internationally. Its initiatives ranged from factory conditions, with a reduced working week and above-average wages, to 9 1/2 months paid maternity leave (almost unheard of at the time), family welfare and child care, worker’s housing and recreation facilities. Olivetti factories were unquestionably, in the company’s first half-century, the embodiments of a socialist ideal of Utopia.
Camillo is described in Olivetti’s official history (Olivetti
1908-1958) as a man of “Jewish Old Testament piety and vision”, a man of “Messianic enthusiasm”. This was, apparently, “admirably complemented” and “prudently tempered” by his wife’s (Luisa’s) “rigorous Waldensian morality and her strict Gospel Christianity”. In later life, Carmillo converted to the Unitarian faith, one which teaches that reason, rational thought, science and philosophy coexist with faith in God, and that humans have the ability to exercise free will in a responsible, constructive and ethical manner, with the assistance of religion. Whatever else Camillo’s Jewish upbringing might have taught him, a sense of fairness to all men was undoubtedly imbued deep within him.
When one reads Consumers Union magazine reports of the industrial conditions in American typewriter factories in the late 1930s, as scanned in an earlier post on this blog, the extent to which Olivetti stood out in terms of industrial relations becomes even more apparent. While the reports praise the conditions at the Hermes factory in Switzerland, they condemn strike-breaking practises and employer intransigence at the Remington factory in the US, and find Underwood merely satisfactory. Comparing, in particular, Camillo Olivetti with James H.Rand, president of Remington Rand, a man described by an industrial trial examiner as “exhibiting a callous, imperturbable disregard of the rights of its employees that is medieval in its assumption of power over the lives of men and shocking in its concept of the modern industrial worker,” is like putting a god beside the devil himself.
Such was Camillo’s close relationship with his workforce, he even took part in Ivrea May Day marches with them. Olivetti’s history records that Camillo’s “interest in every detail of production and sales was complemented by his personal relations with each of his employees. He knew the work and he knew the men, who respected him for his experience and skill. Camillo’s intimacy with his workmen was unusual for Italy, but the men found it only natural for him to join their celebrations on May Day.”
In his introduction to the Olivetti history, Adriano outlines his father’s socialist philosophy, as it applied to his relations with his workforce. But Adriano went to greater lengths to explain his own philosophy, one that embraced a concept of “community”, not just of the Olivetti company, but of other industries in Ivrea’s Canavese area. Read in the light of today’s fiercely competitive, cut-throat business world, Adriano’s vision of company cooperation and employee assistance across the region may seem wildly romantic and unrealistic. But clearly he was passionate about an idea which, he said, had taken 20 years to formulate in his head. “Long before it was theory,” says Adriano in the opening sentence of his “Notes Toward the History of a Factory”, “the Community was life.”
Romantic or not, a unique organisation called the Comunità did emerge under Adriano’s guidance and example, and spread not just across North Italy but throughout the country, acting as an effective counter to Communism. In the 1958 election for Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, the Communist Party vote dropped 3 per cent while the ISP vote rose 9 per cent and the fledgling Community Party won its one and only seat (Adriano Olivetti himself becoming the MP for Piedmont), having campaigned against particracy and Jacobin centralism, aiming to replace them with a federal union of local communities. The movement tried to merge both liberal and socialist ideas, opposing both conservatives and communists. It was all too short-lived, sadly, as Comunità died with Adriano in 1960. One claim has it, however, that “Statistics prove … that because of Olivetti’s organisation and its influence on the working class, Italy was spared from the tentacles of Communism.”
In his introduction to the Olivetti history, Adriano goes on the express his own personal disappointment at the failure of the Italian socialist revolution, which he says he witnessed during his years at a polytechnic institute between 1919-1924. “I can still picture the great parade of 200,000 people on May Day 1922, in Turin; but there was no one intellectually capable of channelling this great human impulse toward a better way of life. The question that remained in my mind was why the remarkable advances in business and technical organisation did not seem to have their political counterparts.” The Partito Socialista Italiano (ISP) won 30 per cent of the vote in the 1919 Italian parliamentary elections. During the postWorld War I crisis, the party called for revolution, but, according to S.I.Dorofeev’s entry in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979) “its leaders failed to give purposeful, practical guidance to the mounting mass movement and were unable to devise specific means of attaining the victory of socialist revolution in Italy. In 1921 the revolutionary wing of the ISP withdrew from the party, forming the Communist Party of Italy. Under attack by fascism, which took power in Italy in 1922, the ISP had essentially ceased its activities in the country by 1926.” Mussolini had been editor of a Socialist newspaper but in 1915 broke with the pacifism of the socialists and was expelled from the party. The rise of fascism should have been - and in some cases was - exceedingly bad news for the Olivettis.
It must be to the eternal credit of the Olivettis, indeed, that in terms of continuing to support socialism, they went their own way in the face of a rapidly changing Italian political environment; they went on putting their beliefs into practise with their own workforce, and they maintained their socialist philosophy during a period when it was neither politically expedient nor personally safe to do so. Olivetti Builds: Modern Architecture in Ivrea(2001), by Patrizia Bonifazio and Paolo Scrivano, says, “After an initial policy of not creating opposition to Fascism (perhaps also because of the Fascist party’s ambiguous position on social issues), Adriano Olivetti’s views hardened into evident dissent to the regime. Imprisoned in Rome in 1943 by the Badoglio government, in February 1944 Olivetti escaped to Switzerland, where he met many Italian intellectuals in exile. In May 1945, Adriano returned to Ivrea and a new phase of reorganisation and expansion in the company began.”
Camillo Olivetti had first set out his philosophy in a series of articles in Tempi Moderni and Azione Riformista “which preceded initiatives like the creation of the Burzio Fund in 1932 for health assistance, a complement of that guaranteed by Italian law at the time”.
The Olivetti history says, “When many factories were temporarily taken over by the workers, just after the First World War, the men at the Olivetti plant decided that their best interests were served by Camillo, and he remained in charge. What might be described as a kindly paternalism, seen from the viewpoint of today’s large impersonal industrial organisation, was then a personal relationship in which the workers’ esteem for Olivetti was based on his love for work performed as if it were an art. The economic results of the work interested him less, and indeed he was indifferent to money in itself … Certainly, his ideas of socialism did not stem from an economic view of society as from a moralistic vein. He was not a Marist, and did not think of society in terms of class conflict; he was a bourgeois and an industrialist, and as such it would not have occurred to him to condemn the capitalist system.”
Later, the history adds, “Camillo Olivetti never had any doubts concerning the worker’s right to share in the profits, and it was on this basis that he understood co-operation between the classes, a
conciliation whose ethical premises he found, with a somewhat bitter shrewdness, in the spirit of Christianity.”
The history describes Olivetti employer-worker relations as so close that plans often took on the character of group decisions. “Honest workmanship and honest dealing were a moral principle with Camillo, and he defended this principle without regard to profit.”
The Olivetti history ends its chapter on Camillo with a moving tribute: “The day [in December 1943] he was buried it was raining; but from Ivrea, from the neighbouring towns, and from every point of the Canavese region, the workers got to the funeral. They came by any means they could, most of them on bicycles, regardless of fatigue and danger. The Nazis were slaughtering Partisans and threatening whole towns with reprisals. The little Jewish cemetery in Biella [where Camillo died] could have become the scene of a massacre. Yet it was filled that day with silent bare-headed men standing in the rain.”
What more need be said about a man who turned his ideals of socialism, of fairness and equality, into a working, practical reality, a man who turned a typewriter factory into a worker’s Utopia?
100 Years of Olivetti Typewriters: Adriano the Aesthete
In 1954, the first year of the Italian industrial design awards, for the Compasso d’Oro, the five-man jury, which included the awards founder Gio Ponti, handed out 15 golden compasses. The winners’ list covered an intriguing array of designs: from a toy monkey to an automatic hunting rifle, a fishing jacket, table lamps, chairs, a 24hour business suitcase, a perfume travel flask and a blue glass vase. The only designer to pick up two of the first 15 stylish trophies was Marcello Nizzoli: one for a “supernova” sewing machine and the other for the Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter (below in pistachio and salmon pink).
The latter Nizzoli award was at last some due recognition, after more than three decades of effort, for what had become internationally recognised and admired as “the Olivetti style”.
The Olivetti typewriter company’s founder, Camillo Olivetti, had set down the template for the “Olivetti style” in 1912. “A typewriter,” he wrote, “should not be a geegaw [decorative trinket; bauble] for the drawing room, ornate and in questionable taste. It should have an appearance that is serious and elegant at the same time.” Camillo’s company had consistently put its first president’s policy into practise in the ensuing 42 years.
The company’s official history (Olivetti 1908-1958) described the “Olivetti style” as a “specific taste and trend … something more than transitory fashion or gifted improvisation. It means that the
collaboration and joint effort of the management of an industry and a group of painters and graphic artists … architects and industrial designers has become a cultural reality. The Olivetti company gives and has always given as much relative importance to the choice of a colour [and] the design for a … machine, as to the choice of some technical procedure, a type of steel or a method of casting.” In the second year of the Compasso d’Oros, a special award was made to Camillo’s son, Adriano, who had since 1932 been Olivetti’s director-general and since 1938 its second president. The award was “achievements in industrial aesthetics”.
The following year, 1956, Adriano won the Gran Premio di Architettura for “the architectural merit, original industrial design, social and human objectives incorporated in every Olivetti achievement”. These prizes were much merited. Among his many other attributes, Adriano was and always had been a committed aesthete. And it is to Adriano that we owe the enduring visual delight of some of the most beautiful typewriters ever made. There can be no doubt that of all the major typewriter manufacturers of the 20th century, Olivetti stood apart for following Camillo’s credo: it achieved lasting elegance in its machines with an unparalleled standard of stylishness in design, and at the same time a serious, unwavering level of technological quality. Put together, these ensured Olivetti typewriters were seldom matched by other brands.
These are not machines of Adriano’s personal design. Yet Adriano’s imprint was on all of them. He had a deep, abiding appreciation of art and architecture. It was his decision for Olivetti to enter the portable typewriter market in 1932, it was his vision which brought to the Olivetti design table artists, architects and graphic artists who could give the Olivetti portable such a high degree of distinction.
It appears that, certainly in Adriano’s younger days, he and his father did not always see eye-to-eye. Unlike his father, Adriano, as an independent-minded adolescent, did not see his future in a typewriter factory. But after a home education under the tutelage of his mother, Luisa, Adriano was sent, perhaps against his wishes, to study industrial chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Turin, from 1919-1924. Perhaps the architecture school at Milan, some 80 miles further east of Turin, might have been more to his liking – he was certainly to later make great use of the products of that seat of learning. Or maybe somewhere else, to study art itself.
Dutifully, however, Adriano did as his father wanted – and that was for Adriano to train to work in the Olivetti factory. Having graduated from the Turin Polytechnic, Adriano was then sent to the United States, in 1925. There, during the course of the following year, he visited more than 100 factories, including the Remington typewriter factory. “I hoped to learn,” he later said, “the secrets of their administrative and organisational techniques. [Yet] To be applicable to conditions in Italy, what I learned had to be adapted
and transformed, for I faced at the age of 25 the complex problem of modernising and enlarging an industry based on a semi-artisan system.” A major part of Adriano’s almost immediate solution to this “modernising” problem was to successfully meld the manufacturing techniques of the US with the great traditions of Italian art and design; he tapped into the rich vein of Italy’s cultural history, and its natural national eye for classic beauty.
It was timely for Adriano to have visited the US in 1925-26. This was a period of change in the design of portable typewriters. After the “boom” in the portable market created by the Corona three-bank from 1912-1919, Underwood had entered the field, quickly followed by Remington. By 1926 Royal was carefully planning its assault. The Royal portable (the one pictured above from Wim Van Roompuy's typewriter.be site) was to be somewhat different to the norm – bulkier and higher than the Corona, Underwood and Remington four-banks, it was the beginning of the approach toward what we might call today a semiportable. It definitely gave the appearance of being sturdier. The move was a success for Royal, which in the three years from 1928-1930, sold more than a quarter of a million units of its model.
Adriano was encouraged not just to add Olivetti to the list of portable makers, but to start looking at markets far beyond Italy. Like George Ed Smith at Royal before him, Adriano’s approach to Olivetti’s entry into the portable market was meticulous. For the mechanical design of the now legendary Olivetti ICO MP1, Adriano enlisted Riccardo Levi, his wife’s uncle. (Adriano had, after his travels to the US and also to England, married Paulo Levi, the daughter of renowned histologist Giuseppe Levi and the sister of author Natalia Ginzburg, wife of writer Leone Ginzburg. One of Paulo’s brothers, Mario, also a writer, worked for Olivetti at the time as a commercial director. Riccardo Levi would in 1934 develop Olivetti’s first adding machine.)
Most importantly, however, Adriano had Aldo Magnelli design the diecast alloy outer casing, one which wraps so tightly around the inner workings. Itâ€™s a work of artistic genius in the way it seamlessly merges a beautifully tiered, high curved collar around the typebasket with straight lines down to the sides of the keyboard.
It is a design decidedly born of the love Magnelli shared with his famous painter brother Alberto (above) for the geometric abstraction style of art which incorporated cubist and futurist elements. Alberto (1888-1971) was, at the time his brother was working on the MP1, returning to abstraction in the form of concrete art, featuring geometric shapes and overlapping planes.
Aldo Magnelli, from Florence, had worked on experimental physics in Rome with Enrico Fermi, and joined Olivetti as an engineer. He first designed for the company a horizontal five-drawer filing cabinet called a Synthesis (above), which went into mass production in 1931, with the Rome Municipal Registry Office putting in a first order for 1400. That same year, Adriano established an Olivetti development office, directed by Renato Zveteremich. The program recruited painters Alexander â€œXantiâ€? Schawinksy (below) and Nizzoli, along with architects, graphic artists and printers. One of the first projects was the MP1. By 1932 it was ready to be launched on an unsuspecting world. The following year, 9000 were made, and for the first time half the typewriters sold in Italy were Olivetti. The Magnellis had close ties with South America, and Aldo was later sent to Brazil to represent Olivetti. In 1940 he opened a steel furniture company in Sao Paulo called Securit, now run by his daughter Christina Maria Magnelli. It manufactures office furniture systems which combine steel, aluminium and wood.
Meanwhile, in Ivrea, Adriano was moving toward bigger and great things for Olivetti. Having noted the success of the Royal portable in the US, and the readiness with which Remington and Corona, especially, had adapted the Royal portableâ€™s size and shape to their own needs, Adriano began to plan a semi-portable. The MP1 had been introduced at a time when other parts of Continental Europe and Britain were producing similar machines, notably the Imperial Good Companion (based on the German Torpedo) and other German models, such as the Olympia, Continental, Mercedes, Triumph, Erika and Rheinmetall (see photo of my collection below). The market was growing, but so too was the competition. Time for something almost completely different.
Instead of referring to it as a semi-portable, Olivetti chose to describe the Studio 42 as a “semi-standard” – half an office machine, in other words, rather than twice a portable. It was created in 1935 by engineer Ottavio Luzzati. Schawinsky combined his artistic skills with the ideas of architects Luigi Figini (1903–1984) and Gino Pollini (1903-1991) and factory technicians to come up with the futuristic outer design and produce, like the MP1, one of the most striking typewriters ever made.
Schawinsky was born in Basel in Switzerland on March 26, 1904, and educated in Zurich. From 1921-1923 he worked for the Cologne
architectural firm Theodor Merill, then attended the School of Arts in Berlin and the Bauhaus in Weimar. In 1933 he joined the Milan advertising company Studio Boggeri, and through this organisation linked up with Adriano Olivetti’s development program. He died on September 11, 1979, in Locarno, Switzerland.
Just as Hermes in Schawinsky’s native Switzerland was returning portables to an ultra-flat, light, compact shape and size – one which was to be maintained in Germany after World War II by the like of Gossen and Groma, and in France by Rooy – Olivetti’s Studio 42 pointed to a whole new direction for the rest of the world.
After the War, of course, Olivetti returned to the light, compact roots of the portable, producing perhaps the most popular model of them all: Nizzoli’s Lettera 22. In 1959, the Illinois Institute of Technology approached 100 leading design engineers to vote on the best design product of the previous century – and the Lettera 22 came out on top. Little wonder it won a 1954 Compasso d’Ora. Other subsequent winners for Olivetti included Mario Bellini, who designed the Divisumma 24 calculator (awards in 1962, for a marking machine in 1964, 1970, 1979 and 2001), Ettore Sottsass for the Elea electronic computer in 1959, and Briton George Sowden with a fax machine in 1991. Nizzoli was Olivetti’s director of industrial design from 1936 until succeeded by Bellini and then Sottsass. Both Bellini and Sottsass designed a number of the subsequent versions of the Lettera. Other great Nizzoli achievements were the Lexikon 80 (also 1948) and the Diaspron 82(1959).
Nizzoli was born on January 2, 1895, in Boretto, Reggio Emilia, and studied at Scuola die Belle Arti, the art academy at Parma. As a painter, he was committed to futurism. He opened a studio in Milan and designed silk scarves featuring patterns in the art déco style, as well as designing posters for Campari. Nizzoli's product design was an organic, sculptural form combined with functional machine construction optimised for industrial mass production. He died in Camogli, Genova, on July 31, 1969.
The legacy of Adrian Olivetti’s influence on the “Olivetti style” is the impressive list of artists and architects who worked for him at Olivetti. They include Franco Albini, Gae Aulenti, Walter Ballmer, Franco Bassi, Bellini, Carlo De Benedetti, Figini and Pollini, Fiocchi, Jean-Michel Folon, Jorge Fuentes, Roberto Gabetti and Aimaro Isola, Ignazio Gardella, Milton Glaser, Louis Kahn, Perry A. King, Le Corbusier, Leo Lionni, Vico Magestretti, Magnelli, Richard Meier, George Nelson, Constantino Nivola, Nizzoli, Camillo, Giovanni Pintori, Geno Prampolini, Bruno Scagliola, Carlo Scarpa, Giorgio Soavi, Sottsass (who had the original concept for the the Valentine, above, finished by King), James Stirling, Sowden, Schawinsky, Kenzo Tange and Marco Zanuso.
100 Years of Olivetti Typewriters: La Olivetti nel Mondo
Marcello Nizzoliâ€™s famous 1956 Olivetti trademark, of a continuous line wrapped in a spiral, was hugely symbolic.
At the time Nizzoli came up with the enduring logo, in the companyâ€™s 48th year, Olivetti had circled the globe and was beginning to tighten its grip on the international typewriter market. â€œThe Olivetti in the Worldâ€? ran the late 1930s advertisement for the Studio 42 (above). Olivetti was not just in the world, it had the world covered. By the time it celebrated its half-century, in 1958, it had established these factories and branches beyond Italy: Factories: Barcelona 1929 Buenos Aires 1932 Glasgow 1947 Johannesburg 1949 Branches: Brussels 1930 Paris 1939 Vienna 1949 Mexico City 1949 New York 1950 Sydney 1952 Bogota 1953 Frankfurt 1953 Toronto 1955 Caracas 1956 Havana 1957 Copenhagen 1958
A year later, in October 1959, Olivetti bought a controlling 69 per cent interest in Underwood. This gave it added factories in the US, Canada, Germany and England, as well as a staff of 10,000 to supplement its own 24,700 workers. It was the first step towards what
was the become, in the manual portable typewriter world, virtual domination. When Wilfred Beeching published his updatedCentury of the Typewriter in 1990, he listed Olivetti’s control as extending to Adler, Triumph, Royal and Imperial, all of which had previously been owned by Litton Industries, as well as Hermes (the last model Babys, below, were made by Olivetti in Brazil, and also marketed as the Lettera 82).
Of the Corona output making
major 20th century brands, that left only Olympia and Smithas independent of Olivetti – though by then, of course, SCM’s had dwindled to a fraction of what Corona had started out in 1912.
Beeching went on to make the point that “Olivetti assemble many products in South Africa and South America, and are represented in almost every country. They owe their place in the office equipment world to their founder, and to a far-sighted policy towards product development and staff relationship. They are quite unique in both the advertising and presentation of their products.”
Yet at its beginnings, in the town of Ivrea in October 1908, Olivetti learned to walk very slowly and very deliberately before it ever set out to run. Its founder, Camillo Olivetti, was determined to prefect his product before he would think about trying to sell it widely. In 1923, Camillo told the editors of A Condensed History of the Writing Machine, “The Olivetti policy is to develop a sound business in few countries where the product can be appreciated, and not to scatter few machines everywhere.”
A Condensed History recorded, â€œBesides Italy, where they have branch houses and agents in the whole country, they have done good work in Belgium, Argentina, Egypt and Holland, and a few other countries. The result is that all of the output of the factory, which is naturally not as large as many other concerns, is oversold; this is the only reason why the Olivetti people have not endeavoured hitherto to push their commercial organisation further afield, but the Olivetti nevertheless is a typewriter product which is destined to occupy a highly important place in the industry reviewed in this historical compilation.â€? How right this publication proved to be.
Notwithstanding Camilloâ€™s assurances about a tentative but steady start, he had followed his April 4, 1909, and May 24, 1910, patents in Italy for his first typewriter, the M1, with a US patent dated May
23, 1911. He was already looking ahead, less than a month after first putting the M1 before the public, at the Turin World’s Fair. Soon he had also taken out patents for France, Germany, England, Austria and Switzerland.
Olivetti’s first branch office was opened in Milan in 1912, with two salesmen, a clerk and a mechanic. The machines were delivered on a tricycle. The following year Olivetti expanded to Genoa, Rome and Naples. But already, in that immediate pre-World War I period, Olivetti, according to its own official history, was conscious of being “still hampered by a widespread prejudice against Italian products.”
After the war, Olivetti quickly got back on its typewriter-making feet, launched a new model, the M20 (above), and exhibited at the first Commercial Fair in Brussels, in April 1920. That same year, Olivettis reached Argentina and Ruys was awarded exclusive distribution rights in Holland. In 1928, Camillo initiated a Spanish venture with Giulio Capara which led, the next year, to Olivetti setting up its first allied foreign company, in Barcelona (S.A. Hispano Olivetti, which started to make M20s and later M40s, prochure below) in 1930).
Also in 1929, Camillo travelled to Argentina to extend Olivetti’s operations in South America, and in 1932 S.A. Olivetti Argentina superseded the sales office in Buenos Aires. The disastrous financial events which spread throughout the world from Wall Street at this time did not impede Olivetti. Camillo’s son Adriano wrote in the company’s annual report that “by the end of 1933, our battle against the world depression was won”. Indeed, in 1932 Olivetti changed from a partnership to a joint-stock company, with capital of 13 million lire (reaching 19.5 million lire in 1938, 23 million lire in 1930, 30 million in 1942 and 120 million in 1947 – almost a tenfold increase in 15 years. In 1948 it was increased to 600 million, in 1949 doubled, and in 1954 tripled to 3.6 billion.). And in 1933, celebrating its 25th anniversary, Olivetti proudly noted it had 13 branches and 79 distributors in Italy, as well as representatives in Egypt, Tunisia, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Syria, the Aegean Island, Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Yugoslavia, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and Hungary.
What might well have not alone impeded Olivettiâ€™s progress, but irreparably damaged the company, was the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany and the outbreak of World War II. In 1939, Olivettiâ€™s overseas figures were healthy: 7400 standard machines and 7375 portables went abroad of the 23,413 office machines and 19,288 portables made. The company had opened SAMPO Olivetti in Paris and an agency in Mexico City; and Barcelona was back in full production after the Spanish Civil War. The early years of the war did not hinder it. In 1942, 37,752 office machines and 26,696 portables were made, of which 7169 office machines and 7289 portables were exported.
One major setback came on August 6, 1944, with the shooting and hanging of Guglielmo Jervis, an Olivetti engineer who was commander of the Ivrea Partisans. An ICO factory National Liberation Committee, which included Jervis, had been formed on September 11, 1943, the day after the Nazis occupied Rome and three days after Italy’s surrender to the Allies. “Olivetti men are the [committee’s] moving spirit,” the company’s history states; 24 Olivetti workers were killed in “the struggle for liberation”. In October 1944, a Nazi plan to destroy the Ivrea factory was foiled by Olivetti employees. The plant at Apuania was destroyed.
Full production and exports were resumed in 1945, and the next year 600 machines were sent to Argentina, as well as more to Uruguay, each shipment through New York.
Perhaps one of the most significant moves by Olivetti was into Britain in 1947. A London company was established and, at the invitation of the British Government, Olivetti brought employment to an economically depressed and war-devastated Glasgow. By the end of the decade, vast numbers of Nizzoli’s Lexicon 80 and Olivetti Lettera 22 portable (joined later by the Studio 44) were being assembled at the Scottish factory on the Queenslie Industrial Estate on Clydeside (photo above), each badged as “British-made”. This enabled Olivetti to overcome 1950s import restrictions in British Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Coincidentally with the British move, Olivetti formed companies in Mexico and South Africa (where, though apartheid had just been introduced, Olivetti gave non-white workers the rare opportunity for meaningful, well-paid employment in Johannesburg - photo above). From Mexico, Lettera 22s relabelled as Couriers for Sears Roebuck were shipped into the US (photo below), opening up the biggest typewriter market for Olivetti for the first time. The Olivetti Corporation of America was established in New York in 1950.
Olivettis reached Australia at the time of the Studio 44â€™s debut in 1952 and the company managed a major coup with the organisers of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. When the Organising Committee found itself unable to employ staff to handwrite several thousand participation diplomas, Olivetti offered to make a special typewriter with a suitably-sized (3/16th of an inch) cursive typeface to do the job (photo below). This was the first recognised support for an Olympic Games by a typewriter company and led to Olivetti also supplying typewriters to organisers and for use in press centres at subsequent Olympics in Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964) and Mexico City (1968).
Olivetti could afford to be generous with its machines. By 1958, its 10 factories around the world were churning out 6.2 standard typewriters a minute!
Olivettiâ€™s massively expensive takeover of Underwood in 1959 was its most significant international acquisition. Afterwards, most Olivetti models were rebranded as Underwoods, while the link with Sear continued. This allowed Olivetti to get a considerable and permanent foothold in the US, a marketplace it had cherished from its earliest days.
The takeover was the real culmination of the company’s huge worldwide growth. It had begun taking over other typewriter factories in very much a local way, in the early 1930s, at the time it entered the portable typewriter market. The first was Invicta of Turin (later model MP1s were also sold as Invictas, and as Harrod’s of London typewriters) and Olivetti’s tentacles later spread to Antares and Everest in Milan.
But the world was in its sights from the time Adriano Olivetti took control of the company from his father. And by 1980s, ironically at a time when the portable manual was being phased out, this diminishing
typewriter world was Olivettiâ€™s.
TOMORROW: Fifth and final part - Olivetti's Legacy
100 Years of Olivetti Typewriters: The Legacy of Camillo and Adriano
Would you give a typewriter to MythBusters, if Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman wanted one for one of those strike-a-match-and-see-how-highit-flies experiments? No? Well â€Ś maybe one of those nondescript, rustmarked Nakajima ALLS taking up space in the shed. But an Olivetti Lettera 32? No way.
Lettera 32s may be one of the most common, and often the lowest-priced typewriters that pop up on eBays around the world on a daily basis, but no one in their right mind would deliberately allow an Olivetti to come to any harm.
Why? Because it’s an Olivetti. And that’s exactly why Lettera 32s are so common and so low-priced these days. An awful lot of people bought them 40 and 50 years ago (pictures above are of the author in 1979 and Richard Amery today). They were durable (think Cormac McCarthy), they did the heavy duty work, and they were light and compact at the same time. And they were nice to look at, too. I haven’t met a person yet who, having once owned an Olivetti Lettera 22 or 32, didn’t retain fond memories of it.
Some people might have abused them, and used them for garden sculpture, or converted them into electronic devices, or used them as models for wooden artwork, or just for artwork. But that was just another way showing affection. So, too, it could be said, is using an Olivetti portable as a symbol as part of a protest against the suppression - and killing - of journalists in Mexico.
In terms of typewriters, is this all there is left of the legacy of Camillo Olivetti and his son Adriano? Far better that, I suppose, than the awful portable manual typewriter called an Olivetti coming out of China today â€“ the Olivetti MS25 Premier Plus. Premier Plus? Itâ€™s a premier plus waste of money, as most people who have bought one will testify.
Indeed, a brief look at reviews on Amazon from the past 18 months reveals: “I found it to be a piece of junk. It is made in China, and it is HORRIBLE! It just doesn't work ... The best thing to do with this typewriter if you order one is to take it from the delivery man and throw it in the garbage.” “It was a huge mistake! … I don't know what circumstances might make this the ideal machine, but as is, it's an exercise in disappointment and frustration.” “Where do I start? Everything that could break on this machine did in fact … I took this machine to an old antique machine dealer, and he actually started laughing. Seriously, but so did I. Perhaps this situation alone made the machine worth buying.” “Basically, this machine will last a couple of weeks, if you’re lucky … A very sad product indeed ... the fact that the Olivetti name was sacrificed here for corporate identitybranding is another tragedy.” “This ‘typewriter’ comes ready for the scrap heap new out of the box!”
Do the reputations of Camillo and Adriano deserve to be dented like this? To be so seriously tarnished? No. Whoever is responsible for bastardising Olivetti’s great name in this disgraceful manner should be charged with defaming the dead – if that was possible. Camillo and Adriano’s legacy in terms of the many fine buildings Olivetti erected around the world will last for generations. In years to come, however, people may look at these architectural achievements, see a company name, and wonder. What was Olivetti? Surely not the same company that put its name to the MS25 Premier. And, one might add, surely not the same company which took the naming rights and the designs of the fabulous Hermes Baby and turned it into piece of plastic dross (AKA the Olivetti Lettera 82).
With the Lettera 82 (Oh, how that Lettera name was ruined!) the Brazilian manufacturers couldn’t even be bothered putting the little metallic model name strip on the plastic ribbon cover – it’s made of cardboard!
One cannot resist the temptation at this juncture to raise the spectre of Ettore Sottsass and the Valentine. Now this is one Olivetti which also appears regularly on eBay – but at entirely the other end of the price scale from the Lettera 32. The starting prices are invariably way over the top, to a ridiculous degree. And almost inevitably, of course, sellers make the claim the Valentine was designed by Sottsass.
Well, the truth is, Sottsass came up with the concept, but Perry A.King put the finishing touches to what Sottsass was to describe as a “tart”. Sottsass feared dying and being remembered only for this typewriter. He did die, and his name is still associated with the Valentine. The real irony here is that when Sottsass came up with his concept of a typewriter equivalent of the Bic biro – a throwaway – he claims Olivetti executives dismissed the idea out of hand, saying a “cheap, plastic, Chinese thing” did not fit their corporate image. So what did Olivetti do instead? Make the cheap plastic Lettera 82 in Brazil, then put Olivetti’s name to the MS25 Premier in China.
What makes mention of the Valentine irresistible is the question: What would have happened if Sottsass had approached Camillo or Adriano Olivetti with his idea? OK, both men were all for quality. But would the notion of a cheaper typewriter, “a typewriter for the people” as Sottsass called it, not have appealed to them? Maybe the people who took over the running of Olivetti in the 1970s just lost sight of the original Olivetti vision. One thing that I suppose can be said in favour of the Valentine is that it is at least continuing to keep alive in typewriters the broad concept of "Olivetti style". And in that regard it is already a collector's item - of sorts. It seems most likely eBay buyers pay the prices they do for it, not to use it but simply to look at it, to use it as a decorative piece (three Valentines other than the more common red are seen here, with what Sottsass called their "too-short skirts").
If the Valentine is indeed now considered a "collectible" - way ahead, perhaps, of all other post-war Olivetti typewriters - it may well be because some are influenced by Paul Robert's reference on his Virtual Typewriter Collection website. Paul shows the Valentine under the heading "The end of history" and says of it, "If there is one post1920s typewriter that deserves a place in this museum, it is the Olivetti Valentine ... This space-age machine ... can be found in many collections of industrial design. Mechanically, the machine is not fundamentally different from the average machine that was built half a century earlier. Today, Olivetti is the only Western company still producing manual typewriters." But to me the "end of history" for manual potables came much earlier, with the Lettera 22 and 32, the choice of real writers, poets and singers, lovers and dreamers, and other sundry wannabes:
In terms of what they might have made of the Valentine - that is, the Valentine that emerged after Sottsass had walked away from the project - what we know about Camillo and Adriano Olivetti is that their idea of a typewriter was not just something which looked good, but something that worked efficiently as well. We cannot say that of the Valentine. We can say it of the Lettera 32. It’s beautiful, and it’s a workhorse. Can’t beat that.
So in four previous posts on the 100 years of Olivetti typewriters on this blog, we have looked at the start, with the M1 going public at the World’s Fair in Turin on April 29, 1911; the Olivetti dream of a socialist factory and a Utopian society; the aesthetics of Olivetti typewriters, thanks largely to Adriano’s appreciation of art; and the spread of Olivetti from a field outside a village in Italy to become the world’s dominant typewriter manufacturer. Taking all that into account, what has Olivetti the typewriter maker come to today? To the MS25 Premier. Oh, dear … what a sad, sad situation indeed.
Posted by Robert Messenger