Thursday, 19 January 2017

Help: Does Anyone Know the Story Behind This Giant Computer?

Image: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty

A little over a month ago, I started writing this great column for Motherboard called Re-Exposure, which highlights fascinating historic tech photographs like Jay Leno taking part in an AOL chat, the Atari-linked history of Chuck E. Cheese, and Andy Warhol’s excellent taste in computers.

But sometimes the photos on these wire services are so old that the details are nonexistent. Case in point: Above, this wonderful, amazing photo of a gigantic calculator inside a control room at a textile factory. It’s so huge that it doesn’t look real—like they would’ve been better off with an abacus instead. It looks like a science fiction version of computers pulled directly out of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

It’s sitting in the Getty Images archive as an editorial photo, so it happened. But this house-size calculator—if that's even what it is—doesn’t appear to exist out the confines of this photo.

Here’s my best guess about the photo: In 1959, the Italian company Olivetti, then known for its typewriters, created one of the earliest mainframe computers. Italy’s first one, in fact. And the Olivetti Elea 9003, as it turned out, was given to a textile firm named Merino, which is renowned for its wool.

Looking for answers, I reached out to a wide variety of sources. The Woolmark Company, which owns the Merino brand, never got back to me. But the museum that houses Olivetti’s history did, as did Mondadori Portfolio, the Italian photo house that owns this picture. Neither could offer any additional insight: The only info about the picture that Mondadori had was on the back of the photo, which the Getty caption sums up: "Two Italian engineers watching a big electronic calculator placed into the control room of a textile industry. Italy, 1960s."

And Lucia Alberton of the Associazione Archive Storico Olivetti (Olivetti Historical Archive Association) could offer no information about the photo, other than this: “I can surely tell you that the computer you can see in the picture is not the Elea 9003.”

The 1959 Elea 9003's keyboard and central console. Image: Christian Jensen/Wikipedia

The mystery behind this photo is eating at me a little, so I’m gonna release this out to the world. Motherboard readers, can you tell me anything about this amazing photo of two scientists working in the coolest control room of all time? I'm just a tweet away at @ShortFormErnie, or you can ping Motherboard at

from Help: Does Anyone Know the Story Behind This Giant Computer?

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