The Early Years of Computing in Italy

Here are in theory‘s first ever book reviews! The books are

Giorgio Garuzzo
Quando in Italia si facevano i computer
Available for free at Amazon.com and Amazon.it.

Giorgio Ausiello
The Making of a New Science
Available from Springer, as a DRM-free PDF through your academic library.

Both books talk about the early years of computing in Italy, on the industrial and academic side, respectively. They briefly intersect with the story of Olivetti’s Elea computer.

Olivetti was a company that was founded in 1908 to make typewriters, and then branched out to other office/business machines and avionics. In the 1930s, Adriano Olivetti, a son of the founder Camillo Olivetti, took over the company. Adriano Olivetti was an unusual figure of entrepreneur deeply interested in arts, humanities and social sciences, with a utopian vision of a company reinvesting its profits in its community. In the 1950s, he led the company to develop the Elea, the first Italian computer. The Elea was made with transistors, and it came out before IBM had built its own first transistor-based computer.

The development of Elea was led by Mario Tchou. Mario Tchou was a Chinese-Italian born and raised in Rome, who studied electrical engineering at the Sapienza University of Rome and then at Brooklyn Polytechnic, eventually becoming an assistant professor at Columbia University. Olivetti persuaded Tchou to move back to Italy and lead the development of Elea, whose first prototype came out in 1957.

As production was ramping up, tragedy struck: Adriano Olivetti died in 1960, and Mario Tchou died in 1961. To shore up the finances of the company, the new CEO Roberto Olivetti brought in a series of new investors, who pushed to spin off the computer business.

At that point, Olivetti was working on another revolutionary machine, the P101, a programmable desktop calculator billed as the “first desktop computer,” which came out in 1964, attracting huge interest. Nonetheless the company spun off its “computer” division into a joint venture with GE, eventually divesting of it completely. Fortunately, they kept control of the P101 project, because those working on it were careful in branding it internally as a “calculator” (not part of the of deal with GE) rather than a “computer.”

These events are narrated, with a fascinating insider view, in Garuzzo’s book.

Giorgio Ausiello is one of the founding fathers of academic computer science in Italy. His book is a professional memoir that starts in the 1960s, at the time in which he started working on his undergraduate thesis at the Istituto Nazionale per le Applicazioni del Calcolo (INAC, later renamed IAC) at the National Research Council in Rome. At that point INAC had one of Italy’s few computers, a machine bought in 1954 from the Ferranti company in Manchester (when it was installed, it was Italy’s second computer).

As narrated in a previous post, Mauro Picone, the mathematician who was leading INAC, brought Corrado Bohm to Rome to work on this computer, and Ausiello started to work with Bohm at the time in which he was just starting to think about models of computation and lambda-calculus.

Later, Ausiello visited Berkeley in the 1968-69 academic year, when Manuel Blum and Dick Karp had just joined the faculty. Ausiello took part in the first STOC, which was held in Marina del Rey in May 1969, and, later that month, he witnessed the occupation of People’s Park in Berkeley.

The Fall of 1969 marks the start of the first Italian undergraduate programs in Computer Science, in just four three universities: Bari, Milan, Pisa and Torino. Back in Italy from Berkeley, Ausiello continued to work at the National Research Council in Rome.

The book continues with a behind-the-scene narration of the events that led to the founding of the EATCS professional society, the ICALP conference and the TCS journal. There is also another trip to Berkeley in the 1980s, featuring Silvio Micali and Vijay Vazirani working on their matching algorithm, and Shafi Goldwasser just arriving in Berkeley.

Methodically documented and very detail-oriented, the book is a fascinating read, although it leaves you sometimes wanting to hear more about the personalities and the stories of the people involved and less about the attendance lists of certain meetings.

Even when it comes to the dryer details, however, I am happy that the books documents them and makes them available to future generations that will not have any living memory of the 1960s and 1970s.

I should also mention that Alon Rosen has recently interviewed Christos Papadimitriou and Avi Wigderson and those (long) interviews are full of good stories. Finally, the Simons Foundation site has an interview of Laszlo Lovasz in conversation with Avi Wigderson which I very highly recommend everybody to watch.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “The Early Years of Computing in Italy

  1. In 1971, my school in Canada got an Olivetti P101 on loan for a couple of weeks for students to play with during an enrichment period. It was the first “computer” I ever programmed. I recall that Olivetti was marketing it to the school board for classroom teaching of computing and an Olivetti sales rep had shown us how to use it.

    I had no idea that it had been around since 1965! It really would have been on the cutting edge. However, by 1971, simple four-function electronic calculators without programmability had just arrived on store shelves so it did not seem nearly as novel as it would have a few years earlier. It was still about a year before the programmable HP-35 came out. Though the HP-35 was significantly more powerful, the printing capability of the P101 didn’t show up in programmable electronic calculators that the general public could buy until a few years later.

  2. @anonymous Thanks, I had checked wikipedia, and I had assumed that Ausiello’s book was right and wikipedia was wrong, but definitely the unimi website is the most authoritative source for the history of computer science in Milan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s