Olivetti's Programma 101 - iconic early programmable desktop calculator

I do like the look of this machine! And it had a connection to HP’s 9100, which turned out to be expensive for HP.

Here’s a three minute(!) documentary:
Programma 101- Memory of Future


And here’s an article:

P101 front

A few mentions in previous threads:
On the origins of Personal Computing
The first freely programmable electronic calculator in Germany
TI’s SR-60 and other desktop programmables
The Italian Computer: Olivetti’s ELEA 9003 Was a Study in Elegant, Ergonomic Design


There was a little hype about it some years ago, describing it as the first “desktop personal computer.” It used I guess what you could call “coil memory.” It twisted and sensed a coiled wire to store and retrieve values. When I looked at its functions, it’s what we would call a programmable calculator. So, yes, it was a desktop computer, but it’s not what a lot of people would’ve called a “personal computer,” since it was really something that scientists and engineers would want to use, not your average home user.

Yes, it’s alway contentious to call anything a first, but the article seemed quite good. The meaning of “computer” has I think shifted this way and that. In a world of Fortran and minicomputers, a programmable scientific calculator might be comparably useful (if not comparably powerful.)

HP, apparently, sometimes called the 9100 a personal computer, and other times didn’t, because purchasing a calculator was a different kind of (corporate or institutional) decision than purchasing a computer.

That’s what I heard about why DEC called their first computers “PDP” for Programmed Data Processors, rather than “computers.” They knew from their market research that customers had a bias against computers.

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In addition, DEC’s initial investors gave them money on the condition that they wouldn’t make computers and compete with IBM. By making PDPs instead they were following the letter of that agreement.

Brazil had a reserved market policy for mini and micro computers from 1977 to 1992 which didn’t allow foreign companies to sell those machines in the country even if they were locally made. To get around this HP called their HP85 a “calculator” and actually added an extra cover that hid the expansion slots. They did use the word “computer” in print ads, however.


Even better and maybe sort of “real” computers are the P602 (1971) and P603 (delay-line memory). There was also a P652.
I found some magnetic cards on ebay which are quite expensive. The 203 obviously had same or similar cards.
Oh, the 101 also had cards, but they look smaller to me.
Here a 602


And a 203, better showing a card

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P101. Oh, I had one of those! I wrote a for-loop to count to 10. It took 9 seconds!

It also used a single long piece of coiled wire as memory. bits were stored as ‘twists’ on the wire that propagated along it.

And to my eternal shame as a 13 year old, I took it to bits and totally destroyed it…


Oh no! I bet many of us have done something similar, if not so dramatic - for me the curiosity indulged by taking things apart put me on the road to becoming an engineer (of sorts.) At some stage I became more likely to be able to put things back together again, and even sometimes fix things which were broken.

You’re not the only one to have done that.

That may not make you, me, or the others feel better, but we did it and it’s done.


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The P101 and P602 use the same cards. I have both with cards that came with each.

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