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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

3.33  ·  Rating details ·  181 ratings  ·  38 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
...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 5th 2019 by Knopf Publishing Group
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Average rating 3.33  · 
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 ·  181 ratings  ·  38 reviews


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Start your review of The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti: IBM, the CIA, and the Cold War Conspiracy to Shut Down Production of the World's First Desktop Computer
Paolo
Mar 28, 2022 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
A circa un terzo posso già dire la mia. Per finirlo lo finirò, perchè la lettura è addirittura banale però:
Il titolo promette molto su un argomento assai intrigante, la copertina graficamente azzeccata.
Poi si legge il libro di questa autrice quasi novantenne all'epoca della pubblicazione del libro (2019) e si scopre che era una di quelle giornaliste frequentatrici di salotti di famiglie in vista (tra cui gli Olivetti, per l'appunto), specializzata in biografie di personaggi illustri(tra cui Leon
...more
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!
Louise
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
...more
Anfri Bogart
Apr 25, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Molto interessante, rimango scettico sulla teoria del complotto della CIA, ad affossare l'Olivetti furono più probabilmente la miopia del mondo politico ed economico italiano dell'epoca. ...more
Thomas
May 06, 2022 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
Libro comprato per un personale interesse di storia industriale, economica e della tecnologia, e per il ruolo particolare che ha avuto Olivetti per la cultura italiana. Dalla copertina e dalla descrizione della casa editrice, mi aspettavo che queste cose facessero gran parte del succo di questo libro. Invece ho perso rapidamente l’entusiasmo perché questi aspetti, quando apparivano nel discorso, venivano trattati come accessorio per delle vicende personali che, pur essendo magari importanti per ...more
JDK1962
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)
...more
Angelo Baldini
Jul 01, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Il titolo non rispecchia in maniera fedele il contenuto del libro. Sui dubbi che ruotano intorno il declino della Olivetti e della morte dei suoi principali protagonisti sono dedicate soltanto le ultime pagine. In ogni caso è un interessante saggio sulla storia della famiglia e dell'azienda legate alle vicende politiche dell'epoca. ...more
Alessandro Bizzarri
Mar 29, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: storia
Un libro molto interessante anche per chi, come me, conosceva solo marginalmente la storia di Olivetti. Ho trovato più interessante la seconda metà del libro, dal dopoguerra in poi, rispetto alla prima. Ma questo è principalmente perché ero maggiormente interessato alla crescita e il declino dell’azienda nel corso della guerra fredda.

Forse al livello biografico alcuni personaggi chiave avrebbero potuto essere introdotti un po’ meglio.

In ogni caso il libro da un quadro preciso di cosa avrebbe pot
...more
Federico Lucifredi
Mar 13, 2020 rated it liked it
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
...more
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
Mike
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
...more
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
...more
Jennifer
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
Jay Vinayak
Aug 25, 2022 rated it liked it
Read it only if you are interested in 'the vibe.'

The title promises something of a too-good-to-be-true thriller. There is in fact not very much Cold War intrigue in the book at all. It is, however, an engaging account of an interesting and important family, and has a lot of totally irrelevant but rather interesting comments on 'the scene' in mid-century Italy. The author is primarily an art historian, and she makes little attempt to resist the temptation to digress into comments on Bernard Bere
...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
...more
Jeff
May 25, 2021 rated it it was ok
This book tries to convince you that there was some sort of foul play that destroyed the Olivetti Company. Not only does this seem far-fetched, but the author doesn't begin to discuss this until a few pages near the end of the book. On top of this, the author throw in so many needless parenthetical thoughts that the comma key on her keyboard must be completely worn out. If you are looking for an exciting book about corporate intrigue, you will be disappointed. If you want to read about wild spec ...more
Paolo
Mar 27, 2021 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Harley
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
...more
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.
Paola G.M.
Nessuna nuova schiarita sul giallo della morte di Adraino e dei suoi collaboratori ma una buona analisi del contesto storico, economico e politico dell'epoca. Secrest cita spesso i saggi di Alan Friedman che non è esattamente il mio osservatore ideale delle vicende politiche e sociali del nostro paese, tuttavia espone con grande onestà le interferenze esercitate prepotentemente e illegalmente dalla CIA, coadiuvata dalle forze di destra, nei nostri affari interni. ...more
Margit
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.
...more
Emma
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.
Stefano Mastella
Jul 09, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tempo-libero
Molto interressante l'approfondimento delle figure chiave della famiglia Olivetti. Anche la contestualizzazione storica è di rilievo. Anche se lo spazio dato a quest'ultima in alcune sezione mi ha un po' lasciato perplesso. Nel complesso però è un libro che consiglierei ...more
Mac Kie
Dec 15, 2021 rated it liked it
A good history of Olivetti but name and subject of the book does not arrive almost until the last chapter and then the reasoning is weak and not given enough space which is not surprising because, as said, we are at the end of the book!
Alberto Fogola
Jan 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
bel libro che fa riflettere sulla guerra fredda, sul ruolo degli Stati Uniti nell'Italia post bellica e, soprattutto, sul mondo politico ed economico che si è affermato in Italia dagli anni sessanta. Molto consigliato! ...more
Leila
Mar 18, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mi è piaciuto molto il fatto che l'autrice approfondisca sempre il contesto, la situazione storica e culturale (a volte troppo) o altri particolari come l'architettura Bauhaus. La storia di per sé è comunque molto interessante. ...more
Giacomo
Aug 30, 2021 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Libro che presenta speculazioni senza dare alcuna prova o argomentazione.
Una lettura abbastanza interessante solo quando l’autrice si concentra sulla famiglia Olivetti ma tutto sommato un libro così così, dal titolo fuorviante.

Poi, nell’edizione italiana ci sono dei refusi.

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.
Zeljko
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.
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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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