24 December 2020

Pier Giorgio Perotto - electronics engineer

Pioneer who designed world’s first personal computer

Pier Giorgio Perotto spent many years with Olivetti
Pier Giorgio Perotto spent
many years with Olivetti
The engineer Pier Giorgio Perotto, whose Programma 101 machine is seen as the first example of a desktop personal computer, was born on this day in 1930 in Turin.

Perotto invented the Programma 101 in the early 1960s while working for Olivetti, which more than half a century earlier had opened Italy’s first typewriter factory.

The Programma 101, which itself had the appearance of an office typewriter, was really an electronic calculator, but was programmable via information stored on a magnetic strip, which meant it could be instructed to perform a series of calculations in accordance with the needs of the user.

For example, the machine could be programmed to work out tax and other payroll deductions for every employee at a company with the operator needing only to enter the employee’s earnings.

Launched in 1964 and put into production the following year at a price considerably lower than any other computer on the market, the Programma 101 was a great success. In 1969, it was used by NASA in the planning of the Apollo 11 space mission, which saw the first humans set foot on the surface of the moon.

Although born in Turin, Perotto’s family roots were in CavagliĆ , a small town in Piedmont about 55km (34 miles) northeast of Turin in the province of Biella.

Perotto's Programma 101 electronic calculator  has become a design classic
Perotto's Programma 101 electronic calculator 
has become a design classic
After graduating in electrical engineering and aeronautical engineering at the Polytechnic of Turin, he joined Fiat, working in the car manufacturer’s  aeronautical research group, performing stress calculations for supersonic aircraft design. These were complex calculations but were still performed largely on hand-operated mechanical calculators. 

In 1957, Perotto left Fiat to join Olivetti, the groundbreaking Italian firm who had launched the country’s first typewriter factory in 1908 and were eager to be pioneers again after watching the development of the first electronic computers in the United States and Britain.

Based at Olivetti’s electronic research laboratory in Barbaricina, near Pisa, Perotto collaborated in the production of the Elea 9003, one of the first fully transistorised mainframe computers in the world, which launched in 1959.

In 1962, he was appointed head of the team working on Programma 101, which was also known as the Perottina, after its owner. Launched in 1964, it took pride of place in Olivetti's stand at the New York business equipment trade show in 1965. Compared with regular electronic computers, which cost from $25,000 upwards, the Programma 101 was a bargain, retailing at just $3,200. By the early 1970s, some 44,000 machines had been sold, mainly on the US market. 

Perotto won the Leonardo da
Vinci Award in 1991
The Programma 101 has since become seen as a design classic. Styled by Marco Bellini, Olivetti's chief design consultant, the machine, which measured about 2ft (61cm) in length and width and 8ins (20cm) in height, is as likely to be seen in a design museum as a technology museum. 

Perotto remained with Olivetti until 1993, having been appointed head of the company’s research and development division in Ivrea in 1967, in which role he led the transformation of the company from a manufacturer of mechanical devices to a major player in electronics and systems. 

Among his subsequent designs was the Olivetti P6060, the first personal computer with integrated floppy-disk drive.

Later, as well as lecturing at the Polytechnic of Turin, Perotto turned to writing, producing numerous books and articles on strategic management and business information technology.   In 1995 he published Programma 101: l'invenzione del personal computer, which was reprinted in 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the project’s fruition. 

Programma 101 also won him the coveted Leonardo da Vinci Award from the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology in Milan, with which he was presented in 1991.

Married with two sons, Perotto settled in Liguria after his retirement. He died in Genoa in 2002 at the age of 71.

The Sanctuary of Oropa is a UNESCO World Heritage site on the outskirts of Biella
The Sanctuary of Oropa is a UNESCO World
Heritage site on the outskirts of Biella
Travel tip:

The Perotto family’s roots were in CavagliĆ , which lies just under 20km (12 miles) south of Biella, an attractive town of almost 45,000 inhabitants in the foothill of the Alps. Its attractions include a Roman baptistery from the early 1000s and the church and convent of San Sebastian. Wool and textiles have been associated with the town since the 13th century and although many of the town’s factories have closed, brands such as Cerruti 1881, Ermenegildo Zegna, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Fila still have production facilities there. The nearby Bo mountain range is an area rich in springs and lakes fed by glaciers. Nearby attractions include the Panoramica Zegna, a mountain road known for its spectacular views, the Bielmonte ski resort and the Burcina nature reserve. The Sanctuary of Oropa, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a destination for religious pilgrimages.

Ivrea's Duomo, with is neoclassical facade, is built on the site of a pagan temple
Ivrea's Duomo, with is neoclassical facade, is
built on the site of a pagan temple
Travel tip:

Ivrea, where Camillo Olivetti established his business that took his name and where Perotto was based for many years, is another Piedmont town, about 20km (12 miles) northwest of CavagliĆ , is notable for its 14th century castle and the ruins of a 1st century Roman theatre that would have been able to hold 10,000 spectators. The town’s cathedral, which originated from a church built on the same site in the 4th century, itself at the site of a pagan temple, was reconstructed in around 1000 AD in Romanesque style and, in 1785, rebuilt again in a Baroque style. The current neoclassical facade was added in the 19th century. Ivrea hosts an annual carnival before Easter, which includes the Battle of the Oranges, where teams of locals on foot throw oranges at teams riding in carts.

More reading:

How Camillo Olivetti founded Italy's first typewriter factory

Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat boss more powerful than politicians

The Italian engineer who pioneered alternating current (AC) system

Also on this day:

Vigilia di Natale - Christmas Eve

1679: The birth of composer Domenico Sarro

1836: The birth of canning pioneer Francesco Cirio

1897: The birth of supercentenarian Lazzaro Ponticelli


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