The Italian Computer: Olivetti's ELEA 9003 Was a Study in Elegant, Ergonomic Design

A look at Olivetti’s ELEA 9003 mainframe. Mainframe history might have been different if Olivetti had not suffered some bad lack during its introduction. But Olivetti’s legacy lives on via the company STMicroelectronics and via Federico Faggin, who would join the team that would produce the Intel 4004 microprocessor.

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Great article, and with some nice images:


( Photo: Elisabetta Mori; Sole Survivor: Shown here is the last working ELEA 9003 computer, which is still housed in a technical high school in Tuscany.)

I wasn’t aware of the connection, that Olivetti co-founded SGS. It’s interesting that the surviving part of Olivetti - the part which held onto the Programma 101 through slight subterfuge - bought a controlling stake in Acorn during their Electron-related trouble. Olivetti were unaware that they had also bought the ARM project - Project A [photo album] - as it was very secret. Of course ARM later spun out of Acorn, and later still STM became an ARM licensee.

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Wow, that machine is really beautiful.

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Another (but off-topic) connection, this time between Olivetti and Commodore: both had been typewriter companies.

Such a beauty. I simply think the design is something that we do not see anymore. It reminds me of something that I saw as a child, so the lines of that machine gives such a good feeling. Can someone tell what design language they used for it?

The article has some paragraphs on the design. In brief:

  • the computer was designed by “Italian architect Ettore Sottsass Jr., assisted by Dutch designer Andries Van Onck
  • “The ELEA 9003 was housed in a series of modular cabinets. Colored strips identified the contents of each cabinet, such as the power supply, memory, arithmetic logic unit, and the control unit for the peripherals”
  • “Sottsass’s design for the Olivetti ELEA 9003 was complex but elegant. It was awarded the prestigious Compasso d’Oro (Golden Compass) industrial design prize in 1959.”
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We certainly need a photo of the front panel. There’s a free one with this dimostrazione video:

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It turns out there’s a working 9003!

This 9003 had originally belonged to a bank in Siena, where it was used for payroll, managing accounts, calculating interest rates, and the like. In 1972, the bank donated the computer to a high school in the Tuscan hill town of Bibbiena. And there it’s been ever since. Today, former Olivetti employees periodically travel to the ISIS High School Enrico Fermi to tend to the machine.

And a 9003 video by Museo Informatico Bibbienese:

via ClaudioM on mastodon.

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