Pier Giorgio Perotto

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The Independent Online

Pier Giorgio Perotto, engineer and businessman: born Turin, Italy 24 December 1930; engineer and manager, Olivetti and Elea 1957-93; founder and president, Finsa Consulting 1993-2002; married (two sons); died Genoa, Italy 22 January 2002.

On 23 October 1965, 10 years before the first personal computer, Business Week ran an article on a new business machine:

Olivetti Underwood Corp has developed a desk-top computer that's truly small enough to fit on top of a desk. About the size of an office typewriter, it is classified as a computer because it does such tasks as payroll computation and interest calculations by referring to an internally stored program. Called the Programma 101, it is priced at $3,200.

The article went on to explain how, for example, a payroll clerk could insert a magnetic program card into the Programma 101, containing as many as 120 instructions, and then keypunch in an employee's earnings, and "the machine would print out programmed deductions for taxes, medical plans, and the like".

The architect of the Programma 101, Pier Giorgio Perotto, has long been heralded in Italy as "father of the PC". When the Programma 101 hit the US market in 1965, the cheapest available electronic computer was the Digital Equipment PDP-8, launched the same year, which cost $25,000. Although falling short of a true computer, the Olivetti machine's low cost and desk-top convenience made it a must- have for people who worked with numbers everywhere.

Pier Giorgio Perotto was born in Turin in 1930. After training as an engineer, he joined Fiat where he was assigned to the aeronautical research group, and set to work on stress calculations for supersonic aircraft design. At this time, the mid-1950s, calculations had to be performed largely by hand, with the aid of hand-operated mechanical calculators. However, the first electronic computers were just coming onto the market, primarily from the United States and Britain.

The first Italian firm to venture into computers was Olivetti. Founded in 1908, Olivetti was a market leader in typewriters and office calculators – its Divisumma range of calculators selling throughout the world. In 1957, an electronics division was established in Pisa to develop a computer, which Perotto joined. Olivetti announced Italy's first home-produced electronic computer in 1959.

In 1960, following the death of Adriano Olivetti, the firm's president, a financial crisis resulted in the disposal of the electronics division. With a future in electronic computers apparently at an end, Perotto was appointed head of mechanical design at Olivetti's headquarters in Ivrea. In later life, Perotto reflected on the irony that Olivetti abandoned electronics at the very moment that the microelectronics revolution was starting.

Inside Olivetti's staid business-machine operation, Perotto began a somewhat clandestine project to build an electronic calculating machine affectionately known as the "Perottina". The machine combined the look and mechanics of the Divisumma calculators, with the brains of microelectronics. The Programma 101 was a sensation from the moment it was launched on the Italian market in 1964. It took pride of place in Olivetti's stand at the New York business equipment trade show the following year, and in the United States it was sold with an Olivetti Underwood badge (Olivetti having acquired the Underwood typewriter company a few years previously); soon it was sold world-wide.

The Programma 101 was not a sensation just because it was the first desk-top computer, but because it was also a design classic. Styled by Marco Bellini, Olivetti's chief design consultant since 1963, today the Programma 101 is as likely to be seen in a design museum as a technology museum. By the early 1970s some 44,000 machines had been sold. By that time, however, the Programma 101's commercial life had come to an end as competing products came on to the market, notably the Hewlett-Packard 9100 (which resulted in a lawsuit for patent infringement in which Olivetti was awarded substantial damages).

After the success of the Programma 101, in 1967 Perotto was appointed director of product research at Olivetti. However, he was as much a businessman as an engineer, and from 1980 to 1993 he was founding president of Olivetti's consulting subsidiary Elea SpA. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Turin, and vice-president of the Sogea school of business administration, Genoa. He was the author of numerous books and articles on strategic management and business information technology. His last years were spent as president of Finsa Consulting, a position he still held at the time of his death.

In 1991, he was honoured by the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology, Milan, as the creator of the Programma 101 – arguably the world's first personal computer (though perhaps only in Italy would this be argued very strongly). In 1995 Perotto wrote a personal account of his landmark achievement at Olivetti: Programma 101: l'invenzione del personal computer.

Martin Campbell-Kelly