PROGRAMMA 101 : a Teaching and Simulation System
of a Myth in the Computers History
Programma 101 1965
The PROGRAMMA 101 is considered the first "personal" computer or the first "desktop" computer ever presented in the World. At the time it was presented, 1965, in the New York Business Equipments Exhibition, the concept of "personal computer" was seen as a joke. You have to wait some 12 or 13 years more to see an Apple 2.
Giant computers made by Firms such as IBM, Univac, Ferranti in UK, Olivetti in Italy, were already in use, may be a few thousands in the whole World, mostly in the U.S.A., and they were installed in big Industries, Government Agencies, military Offices, some Universities, and few others places. Computers were so big as to fullfill a flat, requiring a lot of electric power, air conditioning, lot of specialized technicians.
Even the so-called mini-computers had to wait some Years before their appearence on the market, in late 60ies, not to mention personal computers such as Apple II and IBM PC for which You had to wait till late 70's.
Olivetti ELEA 9003 (1960)
Very few persons had access to Computers in those years, for technical and security reasons and mainly because of their cost, as a single minute of data processing was so expensive that only very important needs justified their usage. At that time
most office works were done manually in offices with tens or even hundreds employees equipped with their mechanical calculating machines
The Programma 101 erupted in this panorama as a meteorite: it was ahead of its time by at least 10 Years. It was a true, general purpose Computer, low cost, easily programmable. You must remenber that at the time integrated processing units (CPU on one single chip) were not available so the processing logic required many boards. To reduce the cost of memories a delay line was chosen, a solution used before on some big computer in the 50's The computation logic hardware included a full set of floating point mathematical operations, note that at the time the same oparations in big computers required many tens of Kylobytes of software subroutines.
So the Programma 101 in some cases was in practice not only much easier and cheaper but also more powerful than big computers
Delay line memory
With the standard of today someone could look at the Programma 101 as to a toy, in theory a stupid Mobile Phone is 1000 times more powerful inside, but consider that a smart Phone spends its power in doing only fashion goals attractive for young People such as handling photos, music, messages, etc. but it's unable to accept input data, to process them as required, to do complex computations, to produce useful written output. There is still a gap among a Phone and a general purpose computer, even so old and small as the Programma 101 is.
Programma 101 prototype 1964
The Programma 101 was a true computer able to accomplish thousand different goals depending on the different programs put inside.It was able to do complex calculation, to make logical choices to process data in alternative ways depending on intermediate results, to save programs and data in magnetic memories, to print intermediate and final results in paper roll. In practice the Programma 102 had all the capabilities of big computers except for the small amount of storable data, but note that it was possible to chain a sequence of many program cards so to build longer programs.
Programma 101 handbook set 1965
IBM and Univac machines delivery was in the order of Years, they had to be installed in specially prepared sites, with specific High Voltage supply and Air conditioning, and they required high level Technicians for maintenance and programming purposes. On the contrary the Programma 101 could be put on a desk in any office, connected to the Power and it was ready to run. Fantastic!
Programma 101 did play an important role even at NASA, not only as a powerful computing tool on Nasa engineers desks, it seems also as an easy to use low weight computer on board of space missions.
Programma 101 at NASA
Power on NASA engineer desk
(Interview to Davis W.Whittle, member of Apollo 11 flight, Oral History Transcript by Sandra Johnson, Houston, Texas, 16 February 2006)
JOHNSON: Are there any other memories of Apollo 11 that you'd like to share, as far as the
systems that you worked on specifically, or the flight itself?
WHITTLE: No, everything that we had worked great. We had no problems. A lot of that stuff is
in the detail. A lot of it is looking at data. A lot of it, it's searching through the stuff, plotting
trends. Where today the Control Center plots all that stuff for you, we had graph paper. We
were plotting that stuff manually. We didn't have computers that did stuff like that.
By Apollo 11, we had a desktop computer, sort of, kind of, called an Olivetti Programma
101. It was kind of a supercalculator. It was probably a foot and a half square, and about maybe
eight inches tall. It would add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but it would remember a sequence
of these things, and it would record that sequence on a magnetic card, a magnetic strip that was
about a foot long and two inches wide.
So you could write a sequence, a programming sequence, and load it in there, and then if you would-the Lunar Module high-gain antenna was not very smart. It didn't know where Earth was. So you would have to call up and give the astronauts some-we had two knobs, a pitch and yaw knob, but you have to give him some angles to put it at. Then once the antenna found the Earth's signal, it would track it, and then you didn't have to worry. But it had to get within a certain range before it would grab it and track it.
We would have to run four separate programs on this Programma 101, and then in
between those programs, we'd have to get out our manuals. I don't know if you know what a
CRC [Standard Mathematical Tables and Formulae] Manual is, but we'd have to look up
trigonometric functions and input the data, which today your calculator does that.
The Programma 101 cost was at the time 3200 $, against 25-30.000 $ of minicomputers like the Pdp8 or 20 times more of big Computers. It did not require any air conditioning, nor special Site or special Electric Supply. It could be placed in every Desk, like an adding machine, and was easy to be programmed by most Teachers, Engineers, technical Employees who were able to write their own programs tailored to their specific needs. the Programma 101 was adopted with excitement by all kind of users, from NASA engineers to medical teams in hospitals.
Programma 101 in support of medical teams
The Programma 101 had been a surprise even inside Olivetti, in Italy. Its design was started in 1962 at the Olivetti Electronic Lab near Milan, Italy, by a small group of people led by the visionary genius Giorgio Perotto, other key menbers were Giovanni De Sandre and Gastone Garziera. The group moved to Ivrea, the main site of Olivetti, but was rather ignored by the company management still focused on mechanical products, manufactured and sold worldwide in big numbers.
In 1965 the Programma 101 was presented to north-american customers in the New York Business Exhibition, the BEMA Show, as a secondary product, in an Olivetti Boot which was full of mechanical calculators and typewriting machines. But the BEMA visitors soon discovered the Programma 101, rumors attracted lot of interested people, in a couple of days the machine became the true star of the Olivetti Boot and of the exhibition.
Some visitors didn't believe to their eyes and they looked beside the stand expecting some tricky connection to a big computer! The technical Press
soon discovered the machine and Engineers, Teachers, Researchers, all technically minded people wanted to buy one.
Press reactions to Programma 101 at BEMA
The unexpected success of the Programma 101 was so great that Olivetti-Underwood managers didn't believe to their ayes, they realized soon that a new sector was open, but they weren't able to rapidly change their marketing and production plans to fully support the potential sales of the new businness sector.
Advertising in Italy
Advertising in USA
In four Years Olivetti was able to manufacture only 40.000 Programma 101, against a potential market request ten times larger, in the U.S.A. and outside. It is likely that at that time the Programma 101 alone represented nevertheless the majority of the full computers market worldwide.
Other Firms quickly realized the potential market dimension and in few Years many machines with comparable capabilities were introduced, from U.S. and Japanese Firms. Their bigger manufacturing capacity together with the Olivetti apparent low interest for the field caused Olivetti to lose the leadership in this specific field in a few Years.
In addition few Years later the electronic field was turned upside down by the new integrated chips which made possible to assemble complex circuits with few components.
It is worthwhile to remember that Hewlett Packard exploited some technical ideas taken from the Programma 101. Few Years later HP acknowledged the infringement of Olivetti Rights and did pay to Olivetti 900.000 $.
In the following Years Olivetti was nevertheless able to exploit its experience in the data processing and electronic equipment manufacturing by designing, producing and selling world-wide personal computers such as the M20, based on the Zilog Z8000, and the M24, based on the Intel 8086, in collaboration with Bell.
History Channel has produced a smart movie on the Programma 101 story. You can download it from
"Programma 101 story"