October 08, 2019
TURIN — "I dreamed of a machine able to learn and then quietly execute, a machine that allows us to store instructions and data, but whose instructions were simple and intuitive; a machine that could be used by everyone, not just a handful of specialists. For this to be possible it had to be affordable, above all, and be about the same size as the other office products people had grown accustomed to using."
The words were spoken by Pier Giorgio Perotto, the lead engineer on the Olivetti team that built the Programma 101, the world's first personal computer.
Years before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates struck gold, the Italian typewriter manufacturer paved the way for the PC revolution, launching the Programma on October 14th, 1965 in New York City. Back then, the idea of having a computer on your work desk or in your children's room began as a dream, relentlessly pursued by a brilliant team of engineers working for one of the world's most successful companies in the typewriter and calculator sector.
Among the first to understand the P101's potential were the scientists at NASA, which bought 45 of the machines to chart the lunar maps and determine a flight path for the Apollo 11 mission, eventually putting a man on the moon four years later.
The P101 unveiling was held at the Waldorf Astoria, with Italy's beloved public television correspondent Ruggero Orlando presenting, followed by a show-and-tell style demonstration. Hundreds of articles reported the news over the following days of the "first desktop computer of the world." The New York Journal-American wrote: "We may see a computer in every office even before there are two cars in every garage."
Recounting the story of one of the most revolutionary inventions of all time fell to its top engineer, Perotto, who in 1995 published a memoir, The Invention of the Personal Computer: A Fascinating Untold Story.
Olivetti's adventure into the world of electronics started in an experimental laboratory in the Tuscan city of Pisa— where the Elea 9003, Italy's first commercial transistorized mainframe computer, and one of the first in the world, was created in 1958. When the lab director, an engineer named Mario Tchou, died in a car accident in 1961, research operations were shifted from Pisa to the outskirts of Milan, about 170 miles to the north. There, computer-related work eventually had to be pursued in secret, once Olivetti sold off its electronics division to General Electric in 1964, keeping only the historic business of mechanical typewriters and calculators.
A new profession was born, intermediary between man and machine.
But far from the main headquarters in Ivrea some 65 miles away, where the mechanical calculators were produced, Perotto, along with fellow researchers Giovanni de Sandre and Gastone Garziera, quietly continued their work in the Milan lab, designing their own "electronic calculator" for Olivetti— a veritable computer.
By 1963, the latest innovation in information technology was the super-advanced Programmed Data Processor-1, a so-called "mini-computer" released by the Digital Equipment Corporation in the United States. It took up an entire wall, cost $100,000 and was used in a very few, specialized laboratories.
In those days, installing an electronic calculator required a large air-conditioned room to dissipate the heat, and a round-the-clock presence of technical experts ready to intervene. It was tough to keep running for more than a few hours at a time.
Thus, a new profession was born: that of the programmer, intermediary between man and machine. The introduction of transistors (to replace the heat-generating vacuum tubes) gave birth to a second generation of electronic calculators that were more reliable and practical, but no smaller than their predecessors. The difference in size between them and the machines then in use in offices— desktop typewriters and calculators— was still enormous.
In short, in those days it was all about developing memory and computing power, but no one seemed interested in making these calculators more user-friendly: no one was working on simplifying their use for the general public. In Perotto's words, "Man was expected to adapt to machine and not vice versa. Between the end of 1962 and the beginning of 1964, it wasn't a solution that began to take shape in my mind so much as a dream: the dream of a machine which prioritized not just power and speed, but rather functional autonomy. A machine not just able to perform complex calculations, but also to automatically manage the entire processing procedure, under the direct control of man."
Perotto recounts how in the Milan lab they fashioned a tiny memory from a bit of iron wire, with data input and output handled by a little magnetic card, which could also serve as permanent memory or as a data storage unit — the ancestor of floppy disks and memory sticks.
Perotto (bottom left) with the P101 team — Photo: Laboratorio-Museo Tecnologicamente
The keyboard and printer were the work of Franco Bretti, Olivetti's designer. The most delicate part was the programming system: the team served up a completely new one.
"It turned out to be very simple, extremely intuitive, with just sixteen instructions that could be used to compile the mathematical formula of the operations to carry out. A kind of BASIC programming language before its time," Perotto writes, referring to the Beginner's All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code invented at Dartmouth College, the first version of which was published in 1963.
Users of the Programma 101 could write their own custom program using the available instructions, or choose from several programs pre-recorded on the magnetic card: the length of the program wasn't limited by the card, since the programs could be used one after the other in sequence.
The machine was assembled at Olivetti's main Ivrea plant in November 1964, with a young architect, Mario Bellini, handling product design. One can't help smiling when reading Perotto's descriptions of what the marketing men had to say: "They said it was neither one of the big wall-sized electronic calculators, nor was it a desktop calculator, thus there wasn't a market for it. The proof was that none of Olivetti's competitors had put out anything like it."
But the P101's public success would soon prove the marketing experts wrong. The machine was brought to New York to unveil along with Olivetti's other new products.
The public's first reaction was disbelief.
Perotto and his team created several programs with calculations applicable to civil engineering, electronic circuit design, and even a few games. The calculator, known until then internally as the "Perottina" in homage to its creator, was rebaptized: "Programma" recalled one of the exclusive characteristics of the product, while the number "101" was picked because it sounded good in English.
The public's first reaction was disbelief, with some even asking if there wasn't a large calculator hidden in the wall behind. But the skepticism soon gave way to great enthusiasm.
Perotto even participated in the live presentation, playing a kind of mathematical dice game in which man and machine were pitted against one another and challenged to reach a specific number without surpassing it. Often the engineer lost, and the presenter would exclaim, "The Programma 101 even manages to beat its own inventor!"
During November elections the following month, five Programma 101s were used by NBC television stations to calculate the results that would be transmitted to millions of viewers in the New York and New Jersey areas.
One of the revolutionary characteristics of the P101 was that it was mass produced: never before did a commercial product offer so much computing power concentrated in such a small, light body. Fundamental applications, like calculating depreciation, mortgages, and payroll, were also easy to execute. The press celebrated its small size, the idea of the magnetic card, the programming language and its user-friendliness.
In 1966 another two hundred P101s were produced, ninety percent of which were sold abroad, above all in the United States, at the price of two million lira in Italy and $3,200 in the U.S.. Production soon ramped up to hit 44,000 units.
The official presentation in Italy took place on April 7, 1966 and the Italian press also covered it prominently. But Olivetti's competitors didn't sit back and watch. On June 10, 1967 Hewlett Packard paid $900,000 to the Italian company, recognizing it had violated the patent on the Programma 101 with its new model HP9100.
Olivetti ended up deciding to invest more in its typewriters and calculators than in computer electronics, which left an open path for competitors (old and new) to follow into what would become a massive global PC market.
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food / travel
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson
October 26, 2021
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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