Why Camillo Olivetti could be the portrait of a Romantic Genius

Valentine’s Day is approaching, love it or loathe it, there seems to be no middle ground! I’m being completely honest with you, so off the record, I can tell you that receiving chocolate as a present has always been a dream of mine – the Baci chocolate from Perugina are very popular here in Italy, how about where you are? A superb love declaration from my squeeze! Do you remember the engagement proposals you used to receive on a piece of paper? Well, someone wanted to make his love message so special that he created a device so as to forego handwriting!

Have you ever thought about the evolution of writing instruments? From illuminated manuscripts to a delicate renaissance feather, Gutemberg then came to the rescue with his invention of the printing press… and then? How did the transition to “modern” letters occur? Actually, they don’t seem that modern any longer, the supreme digitization having taken over our lives – so to speak, that’s for sure!

I bet that if we stop and think about our distinguished past, we can pinpoint a character who changed the lives of journalists, artists, and musicians – in a nutshell, all our lives. We are talking about Camillo Olivetti. Italy is a country where innovators, explorers, and artisans with a penchant for style abound, and Olivetti did write countless pages of creativity and great courage. 

Camillo Olivetti: the portrait of a romantic genius
This brilliant Piedmontese engineer – born in Ivrea in 1868 – was the mastermind of the much-loved typewriter in Italy, which enthralled such diverse figures as Bob Dylan and Primo Levi, Günther Grass and Francis Ford Coppola. His story is fascinating, to say the least because good old Camillo was not content with a degree in electrotechnical engineering, obtained from the Turin Polytechnic in 1891, two years working in London and one in the USA  – we are still talking about pre-1900, if you get my drift… No way José. While he was across the Atlantic, Camillo thought it would be a good idea to spend some time with Thomas Edison – not exactly a new kid on the block in the realm of inventions, but especially an exceptional inventor who churned out patents from his Menlo Park lab flat out – and Camillo certainly gained the idea of mass-producing specific inventions from him. I can just picture out frantic exchanges of ideas between illustrious minds, which then brought Camillo to Palo Alto University, where he taught electrical engineering for a term. 
Macchina Scrivere Blog Piedmont Delights Olivetti
The Olivetti typewriter: a unique piece of design

Such talent deserves a toast, don’t you think? Camillo would have certainly raised a glass with a noble wine such as our Boca DOC  in 1896, the year he founded his Ditta Olivetti in Ivrea. His intention was to produce electrical tools, and his venture was so successful that he expanded the firm and brought it to Milan, changing its name to C.G.S. (Centimetro Grammo Secondo). Still, he did not seem to enjoy the Lombard city too much – I hope our Milanese friends won’t resent me… Milan l’è sempre Milan, that’s a given  – and so he went back to Piedmont two years later, to fully engage with a device that was still relatively unknown in Italy, but already widespread in the USA: the typewriter

Anyone having learnt to type with an Olivetti model knows what it means to press hardly on those letters, to lose your wits if a mistake occurred, to pull the handle to wrap the text… But what joy to write with a stylish device invented by a distant Piedmontese “friend”? Camillo ultimately nailed his final product after many trials and errors – he also had to tackle with copyright issues, since most of the cogs were patented  – mostly in the hands of two of the biggest US producers, Remington and Underwood. 

Well, Camillo certainly did not care too much and, after another “study” trip in the USA in 1907, he could finally write a letter to his wife Luisa with a typewriter, his very own typewriter, in 1908 (he was a romantic genius, wasn’t he?). On that occasion, he would have certainly given his missus some chocolates – he was a gentleman, after all, and chivalry never goes out of fashion… – some delicious cremini or heady gianduiotti. That was the starting point that got the ball rolling for the big Olivetty industries, that is the Ing. C. Olivetti & C., society, founded in October of the same year. 

Needless to say, that was a great success. The first model they produced, the M1, was shown at the Turin Universal Exhibition in 1911, while the following one made it to the Brussels Exbition in 1919. The Olivettis had already entered the school curriculum, and when his son Adriano took the reins of the company in 1932, and subsequently became director in 1939, the company would have opened to the production of mechanical calculators and computers, always seizing every entrepreneurial opportunity adding an adequate amount of creativity, courage and great humility.

Adriano Olivetti took over the reins of the company in 1932
We can just picture out writers lost in their own worlds, leaning on their typewriters, munching on Truffle hazelnuts with raw cane sugar or drinking some Passito wine. I wonder whether they grasped how lucky they were at using models which would have become icons – the Lettera 22 model, in fact, is now part of the New York MOMA permanent collection, it won the Golden Compass back in 1954 and was chosen by the Illinois Technology Institute as the best design product in a 100-year timescale, in 1959. Furthermore, two commemorative stamps were released at the end of 2020, to celebrate 70 years from the first production of this model and 60 years since the death of Adriano Olivetti.  

That’s all good news – I can hear you say – but everything runs digitally these days, we sign off multi-million deals from our bedrooms and put everything on Instagram – so where can we sense the legacy of such a relevant family?  Pop over to Ivrea and visit the Olivetti Historical Archives: here you will find pamphlets, videos, books, posters and illustrations coming from the various company libraries. A sort of yesteryear storytelling that also puts together photographs taken by eminent artists such as Berengo Gardin and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Then take a walk in this pretty north-Piedmont town, the “XX century industrial city”, and part of the UNESCO World Heritage because of its role in this region’s industrial past. Here, everything was conceived to make workers part of the “Olivetti world”: libraries were in fact open to all workers, so that they could find a moment of respite and distraction, and the structure of the firm itself promoted exchanges and meetings.

This was a real family of pioneers, an exciting story and a memory that also lives through the Adriano Olivetti Foundation – really active as a cultural and scientific cultural centre, promoting study programmes, restoration projects and events of various nature. 

Have we then convinced you? Will taking up a piece of paper and using a typewriter be your next step towards a very original love letter?

– Until next time, With love!
Lucia