The Programma 101: The First PC
In a previous blog about the 10 most influential computers since 1940, we focused on many “firsts” in computing: the first programmable computer, the first electronic computer, the first stored-program computer, etc. One “first” that’s missing from our list is the first commercially-available desktop computer. Today’s blog will focus on just that, the first commercially-available desktop computer, which was the Programma 101, released in 1965.
The company that made the Programma 101 was Olivetti, an Italian business that had been manufacturing typewriters since 1908 and adding machines since 1940.
Olivetti released the first electronic computer designed and manufactured in Italy, the Elea 9003, in 1959. Though it sold its electronics division to General Electric in 1964, the company continued to develop the Programma 101, introducing it at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and then bringing it to market the following year. Around 44,000 of the computers were eventually sold worldwide, at a price of $3,200 (over $20,000 in today’s dollars).
The Programma 101 weighed around 65 pounds and was about the size of a typewriter. It had 37 keys, a decimal selector wheel, a built-in printer, and 240 bytes of internal memory. It could perform additions, subtractions, multiplications, and divisions, and could also calculate numbers’ square roots and absolute values. The Programma 101 also had the ability to store programs to cards that were made of plastic with a magnetic coating on one side.
Notable uses of the Programma 101 include performing calculations for the Apollo 11 moon landing and calculating coordinates for B-52 bombing runs during the Vietnam War.
Olivetti’s ads for the Programma 101 give us further insight into how the computer was used (or intended to be used) and how it compared to other commercially-available computers at the time. This ad for the North American market declares the Programma 101 to be the “the world’s first desk-top computer” and says that it can be purchased “for less than one month’s rental of a large computer.”
The text for this ad for the British market, meanwhile, is worth at quoting at length: “The Olivetti Programma 101 makes it possible for every Company, University, Department, Laboratory, or Institute to have their own private, electronic digital computer. It possesses all the essential characteristics of a ‘traditional’ computer (speed, logical operation, printed output, programmability), but…doesn’t require a skilled operator, and is completely self-contained…‘Software’ consists of a library of ready-made programs covering mathematical formulae and technical, scientific, statistical, and administrative calculations. Wherever calculating machines are inadequate or large-scale computers impracticable…the Olivetti Programma 101 is the ideal answer.”
Olivetti continued to design and manufacture computers after the success of the Programma 101. In 1983, it released the Olivetti M24, which was Europe’s top-selling computer in 1986.
The company eventually sold its PC division in 1997 and in 2003 it became part of Telecom Italia, where once again they began manufacturing and selling computers (along with tablets, smartphones, printers, fax machines, and calculators).
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