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The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti: IBM, the CIA, and the Cold War Conspiracy to Shut Down Production of the World's First Desktop Computer
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The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti: IBM, the CIA, and the Cold War Conspiracy to Shut Down Production of the World's First Desktop Computer

3.14  ·  Rating details ·  92 ratings  ·  20 reviews
The never-before-told true account of the design and development of the first desktop computer by the world's most famous high-styled typewriter company, more than a decade before the arrival of the Osborne 1, the Apple 1, the first Intel microprocessor, and IBM's PC5150.

The human, business, design, engineering, cold war, and tech story of how the Olivetti company came to
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 5th 2019 by Knopf Publishing Group
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Dale Bentz
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
An interesting read of the trials and successes of the Olivetti dynasty in Italy. While Secrest succeeds as a historian and author, however, she fails as a detective. The conjectures concerning the deaths of key members of the Olivetti team are lacking in any new facts that would elevate them beyond the class of pure speculation. Perhaps one day, the true stories will be uncovered and presented in a new book. Hope so!
Dec 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: business, italy
Did you know that in the 1960’s Olivetti was number 103 on Fortune Magazine’s list of the 200 largest industrial companies? That it spanned and the globe with 54,000 employees? That it had developed a microcomputer in 1964-65 (10 years before Steve Jobs) and showed it at the 1964 NY World’s Fair and that NASA bought one of the 44,000 units that sold for $55,000/machine and used it for the moon landing? Neither did I.

This book attempts to interpret this company and its demise. Unfortunately cont
Nov 26, 2019 rated it liked it
I had a special interest in this, since I lived and worked in Ivrea in 1989, at an Olivetti joint venture company. Had I not, I doubt I would have finished this.

Despite the title, the majority of this book is simply a history of Olivetti, and on that score, I found it interesting. Three chapters before the end, the story turns to the P101 (which the author terms "the world's first desktop computer", which is a pretty weak contention...maybe the world's first programmable calculator, but anyway)
Federico Lucifredi
Mar 13, 2020 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Aleramo Lucifredi
Recommended to Federico by: WSJ
A very well-written communal biography of the Olivetti family, a group of industrialists that built a successful technology company in a relatively poor agricultural area nested at the foothills of the alps. The author chronicles the rise of the company as manufacturers of typewriters and mechanical calculators, all the way to their eventual takeover of Underwood in the 1960s, then the largest manufacturer of typewriters worldwide.

The latter third of the book is not so successful. The author has
John Cooper
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Meryle Secrest has written highly acclaimed biographies of artists and architects including Modigliani, Bernstein, Wright, and Berenson, and now in her eighties, she turns to the brilliant Italian industrialists Adriano Olivetti. But instead of writing a straight biography, she posits a conspiracy in which American intelligence services, concerned about powerful minicomputers becoming available to Cold War enemies, assassinate the head of Olivetti's desktop computing project, and then Olivetti h ...more
Dec 10, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: business, history
I happened upon this book and the title caught my eye. Computer history, cold war, spooks? Sign me up.

But the title promises much and this is an example of overselling something that barely fits said title. The book doesn't really know what it wants to be about. Is it the Olivetti family? The company? Typewriters? Or early computers?

Most of it is Italian soap opera. We get to see the drama of who is married to whom, who is having affairs and illegitimate children. This is simply noise, as why d
Craig Evans
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A family business growing and changing. World War 2. Trysts and deceit. Mechanical and electronic engineering. Marriages and divorces. Geopolitical machinations.
These set some of the background and content for the authors exploration of the Olivetti corporation, once one of the largest manufacturers of business machines in the world.
A fascinating read, with much family history and the culmination of great thought and activity in engineering, social activism, art, design, and architecture.
It di
Jun 04, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I honestly thought this was a book I probably wouldn’t like, but I’m glad I decided to read it. Fascinating story. The story not only contained Cold War history but also World War 2 history as it pertained to Olivetti and Italy. There are shocking bits of information on IBM and Hitler as well as Fiat and the role the US government played in Italy post World War 2 through the Cold War. While the book seems to be well researched, it concludes with conjecture/conspiracy theory. This doesn’t necessa ...more
Sean S
Nov 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
Having little background on Olivetti, I found myself simultaneously intrigued and disappointed by this book. The premise of the story is that Olivetti invented the first PC as we generally recognize the term, and there was some nefarious intelligence play to shut it down. The reality of this book is as follows:
* haphazard background on various parts of the Olivetti clan, with weak writing mixed in
* eventually getting to the PC part and realizing the machine was cutting edge but not the PC we thi
Nov 12, 2019 rated it it was ok
I did not finish this book. I read up to page 73 and had to stop.

The cover and description are beautiful. There is so much excitement and intrigue in both. However, it feels like Meryle and her marketing team have two different agendas. The book is written in a very dry tone and discusses politics and architecture quite a bit. And while these both have a part in the main story, I felt as if I were reading through a bunch of Wikipedia articles.

I wanted to keep reading, but increasingly found my
Nick Dye
Jan 29, 2020 rated it did not like it
This book is incredibly clunky. It’s bogged down by dense writing. It’s a textbook example of never judging a book by its cover. You do not get to the story about Olivetti’s first desktop computer until you’re in the last quarter of the book. This book is mainly about the Olivetti family, not the computer and the CIA, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t sold as a mainly a story about the computer arms race. Very disappointing.
Dec 02, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: first-reads
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review.

This book was basically a hodgepodge history of the Olivetti family: what they manufactured, where they had offices, who lived where and with whom, who they liked, what their politics were, and so forth. As a dynastic history, it was barely adequate. As a book about the history of desktop computers, it was a failure. If there was a conspiracy, I must have skipped over it because I don't remember reading about one.
May 08, 2020 rated it liked it
It took 2/3 of the book to get to the main scandal, which was a bit frustrating while reading. I enjoyed learning about the evolution to the first desktop computer, however this book focused much more on the background leading up to that point than anticipated. Overall, I did enjoy it, but it’s not something I would re-read.
Hank Stone
Dec 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
Found this on library shelf. Disappointing. I picked it up because I actually used and programmed the Olivetti computer in the title... but the writer rambles about the history of the company with endless anecdotes and no real point. The conspiracy theory is unconvincing.
Jan 21, 2020 rated it it was ok
3* for the parts about Olivetti as the pre-apple Apple and Adriano Olivetti as the 20th century socialist Steve Jobs. 2* for the at times flat-earther style of prose.
Sarah Baker
Dec 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you read this book because of its subtitle, you will be disappointed. The majority of the book deals with the rise of Olivetti, and the eccentric family of the same name. It’s a great story.
Sue Whitt
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you're interested in the origins of electronic computers or in international espionage, you should read this book.
Jacques Poitras
Jul 02, 2020 rated it did not like it
Not as advertised on the jacket copy. The "mysterious affair" takes up about 30 pages of this book and is told in a confusing way that requires several leaps of logic to believe.
Dec 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Very interesting read. I recommend this book!
This book had amazing potential: early computers, Cold War intrigue, socialist industrialists, typewriters. But the author doesn't get to the main topic of the book until the last couple chapters, and by then you realize she doesn't have any evidence for her thesis.
Fred Peters
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Mar 20, 2020
rated it it was amazing
Nov 03, 2020
rated it it was amazing
Sep 29, 2019
rated it it was ok
Nov 26, 2019
David L.
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Jan 26, 2020
rated it really liked it
Dec 06, 2019
Jason Sherron
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Mar 24, 2020
Timothy Bisset
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Dec 26, 2019
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Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and lives in Washington, DC. She is the author of twelve biographies and was awarded the 2006 Presidential National Humanities Medal.

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