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The Last Working Olivetti Mainframe Sits In a Tuscan High School (ieee.org)
148 points by gscott on Aug 7, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

This reminds me of the beautiful WITCH a.k.a the Harwell Dekatron which sits in the national museum of computing in the UK. It's sadly overshadowed by the much larger bletchley park museum that is just next door but it contains the original working COLOSSUS and other really early computing efforts. But the reason I love the WITCH is that all of it's memory is stored in decimal using dekatron memory, and it glows with numbers, allowing you to see the memory and registers being shifted around as it operated. Combining this with the awesome debug stepper that is literally a physical button to move onto the next cpu instruction or sub-instruction, and you can really get a sense for the early computer architecture and how ideas for CPU design came about.

I saw that system a couple of years ago and loved it. It has hundreds of flashing, spinning dekatron tubes, er, valves, and the control logic is relay based, so it makes lots of clicking noises. It's the apotheosis of the 50s sci-fi movie image of a computer. It is the oldest original working digital computer in the world. (Other systems, like the Colossus, are rebuilds.)

I don't think the collosus at Bletchley is actually original. IIRC, most of the working big machines at Bletchley were reproduced from memory (story goes that all the machines and plans were destroyed after the war because it was "too dangerous" to have them fall into the wrong hands) by the retired telephony engineers who worked on the originals as a sort of hobby club for retirees.

There was a full time guy named Tony Sale who I think organized these efforts who would be there hacking away on stuff and was happy to talk about all of it...

It is a reconstruction -- built from components similar to those of the original machines, but probably varying from the originals in minor detail because the original plans were also destroyed. The rebuild project and the fate of the original machines is summarized briefly in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossus_computer#Influence_an...

Wow, that isn't Olivetti beautiful, but beautiful in its own way.


Interesting. Some technological firsts. Nice design aesthetics. Good corporate culture. Then double whammy bus factor.


Olivetti, in general, is such a tragic story for any Italian tech enthusiast. In many ways they were the original Apple: focusing on aesthetics, design and usability; turning a pretty unsexy commodity such as the typewriter into a luxury good; opening sophisticated "Olivetti stores" in high-end shopping venues such as Manhattan or Paris; and so on.

But by the end of the 80s the writing was on the wall: the Italian system could not support a world-class tech player.

"But by the end of the 80s the writing was on the wall: the Italian system could not support a world-class tech player."

There are many that believe - including Olivetti employees back then, according to documented sources - that the US system did in fact "un-support" it to favor IBM, considering the demise of Olivetti is to be mainly attributed to the sudden death of the Italo-Chinese (CEO and CTO) heads of the Olivetti electronics division, in less than clear circumstances.

From: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mario_Tchou

"Nel 2013 Carlo De Benedetti dichiarò a un programma radiofonico: "In Olivetti c'era la convinzione che fosse stato ucciso dai servizi segreti americani"[6], ipotizzando che l'incidente di Tchou fosse stato in qualche modo provocato per favorire l'IBM[7]."

Consider that in these years, Italy was a Cold War playground where secret services of US/Nato on one side and Russia/China on the other, were actively taking part in multiple underground large scale operations.

I didn't think of that when i read the article, more like what could have been if...

Like thinking about alternative histories, and branches in the multiverse, where ours seems to be the one which took several wrong turns in the past.

But now that you mention it, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full-spectrum_dominance comes to mind, and with it another blip on my mindmap of what could have been (different).

Regarding economic sabotage of / political pressure against



Yes especially after I read the Propaganda Due story...

There's nothing Italy loves more than a good conspiracy theory.

Probably because for those familiar with Italy's history, conspiracies have been proven again and again, including in courts.








And that's not even getting into mafia itself, its ties with judges, state and municipal governments and so on (a whole book on its own), church scandals, and so on...

Americans, who naively believe in the innocence of states and big corporate interests and disbelieve in political conspiracies and cover ups (despite some of their own elite's shit having been exposed time and again, from Hoover's blakmails and politician surveillance to the Watergate, and from Iran-Contra to Abu Ghraib on to Snowden), should probably refrain from commenting on places like Italy...

I think the difference is that a lot of people in Italy will go straight for the conspiracy theory. Maybe that's why the anti-vax movement (and chemtrails and a lot of other nonsense) is so strong there.

I mean... 'dietrologia' is a thing there: https://www.economist.com/johnson/2011/03/15/dietrologia

Just because some things really were plots doesn't mean everything is.

Another nice piece on conspiracy theories: https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2002/12/19/that...

>Just because some things really were plots doesn't mean everything is.

No, but it does make one "Once bitten twice shy" so to speak!

Other really exciting products Olivetti pioneered were Calculators in the 1960's and 70's:

The Programma 101, a workhorse containing magnetostrictive acoustic delay line memory. I saw a youtube tear-down of one once-- amazing. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programma_101)

The way-ahead-of-its-time Divisumma-18. Orange rubber buttons, freaking 1973. (https://www.massmadesoul.com/olivetti-divisumma-18)

> the Italian system could not support a world-class tech player.

What exactly made it unable to do so?

It is quite hard to explain. I'll try to sum it up (partially, I guess) in a few bullet points:

* Italian economy favors small and medium-sized enterprises over big corporations. This has worked alright for some industries (e.g. automotive/machinery and several niche markets), less so for mass production of consumer electronics.

* Italy has few natural and energetic resources, which made it difficult for Olivetti to compete with cheap PC clones from US/Taiwan/etc. Being far away from the ocean migh also have played a role in this.

* Big Italian companies often become entangled with political/financial scandals. Olivetti had its share of that as well. [1]

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/intrigue-italian...

You should edit your post to link to the english version of the wikipedia page.

There's a lot more information in the Italian page.

Maybe you can only understand it if you read Italian. I found the english version of the page much more useful than the Google Translate version.

The trick is google translating Italian wiki page.

It's amazing that it's still working. Transistors in 1959 had a high reject rate. But, apparently, a long life if they worked.

My first job in Silicon Valley was at Olivetti Advanced Technology in Cupertino, CA way back in 1988 (after I moved from Long Island aerospace work). They were quite a company in their day, known for their aesthetic design, too. They _could_ have been Apple if their management didn't all end up in jail.

> To forestall that eventuality, a local group called the Associazione Amici dell’Olivetti ELEA 9003 is raising funds

While I can understand how the nostalgia factor elicits this kind of behaviour, I can't help but think there are many better causes.

Yeah, but there aren't that many working installations of historic mainframes in the world. By a consequence of serendipity, that school now is now the custodian of a piece of computer history. They probably can't keep it indefinitely, and will likely pass it on to someplace like a museum that will continue to maintain it in some form.

I am glad that there are people willing to keep a decent representative sample of big-iron machines in working order.

This is a fair point. I agree that I certainly wouldn't want this machine to just go into the scrap heap :)

Yeah, but that's pretty much always true. Unless you're raising money for... I dunno, rescue puppies for orphans with cancer or something, you can always say there are better causes. But that doesn't mean that this one isn't worth supporting.

Puppies with cancer is the protypical bad cause area. Malaria eradication is way more cost effective.

Depends on how you value the life of a puppy in your area versus the life of a nameless human across the world in a country you've never been to. Human emotion doesn't always follow logical or even moral/ethical boundaries.

So you're saying you hate puppies?

> I can't help but think there are many better causes.

You can say that for pretty much every charity or cause. Did you really want to say this is a total waste of money and time? If so, then I could be persuaded to agree with you.

I suppose not. Of course one could try to rank every possible cause and then we could all decide to only contribute there. That's unlikely to productive.

I guess I might retract my previous statement as I wouldn't want to see the machine disappear either. But I do often wonder what could be accomplished with such resources. This goes for myself too I certainly spend my time and money in ways that are suboptimal.

I have to ask this - while it is super cool to see such an old computer able to be up and running, isn't this a waste of the school's money? Doesn't just running it take an enormous amount of electricity? Wouldn't a $300 PC have about a million times the processing power, and be easier to service and easier for modern users to use? And doesn't it use about 1/1,000th the electricity?

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they still keep this thing running for history's sake, but am a little surprised it's worth the time for a high school to do it.

On one hand it is wasting enormous amount of space and electricity, on the other its one in a lifetime learning prop.

For those asking 'why should I care about ancient Olivetti' I can point you at the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STMicroelectronics, grandchild of original Olivetti SGS silicon fab established in 1957 in order to supply transistors/diodes for ELEA 9003 mainframe.

Nerds will know ST for excellent STM32 ARM microcontrollers. Back in the day you could spot their logo on clone 486 CPUs and NVIDIA RIVA 128 chip.

I'm italian. It would be a nice weekend trip going to tuscany to see it!

There is a great Italian history in making cool machines, including computers.

My colleague is living in Milan and I told him about the Computer Museum in Pisa. He's on a mission to get there now.

I would join you if you were serious about it

The advert which was served on the page completely broke Chrome for me and made my cpu usage skyrocket :-/

Wow, 60 years old now. Is there any older computer still working, outside a museum?

Yes, as least as of 2012, in Texas a small business was using an IBM 402 (circa 1948) to do accounting. https://www.pcworld.com/article/249951/if-it-aint-broke-dont...

I hate stories written this way! I feel like I’m about 1/3 of the way through and it just stops. Someone had to write 800 words and, gosh darn it, exactly 800 words were written

I’d love to have learned more in this story

I know people that collect PDPs, and I used to have a small collection of 80s personal computers myself.

This stuff is interesting in many ways - what word size is used? I/O, storage, core memory, valves, mercury delay lines, anything else?

These were the wild-west days of computers, and there was little in the way of standard components. But this article barely scratched the surface of what this computer has

Gives me something to do tomorrow I guess

Maybe it feels like it ends half way because that article is mainly about the computer historian Elisabetta Mori.

See this [1] for the article she wrote on the ELEA 9003. It was also linked to in the original article.

[1] https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/silicon-revolution/th...

This is a much better article.

There is another short article about the Elea 9003. It's from 2015, in Italian. This is the Google translation https://translate.googleusercontent.com/translate_c?depth=1&...

A working computer from 1959.... astonishingly cool.

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