Camillo Olivetti: story of an italian pioneer

Inventor, craftsman, rebel and nonconformist: Camillo Olivetti was the founder of the company that became a phenomenon and made history thanks to his son Adriano.

By Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Atto di nascita di Camillo Olivetti. (1869/1869)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Samuel David Camillo Olivetti  

Camillo Olivetti was born on 13th August 1868 to a middle-class Jewish family in Ivrea. His father Salvador Benedetto was a textile merchant, while his mother Elvira Sacerdoti was an heiress from a family of wealthy bankers from Modena.

Una fotografia di Camillo Olivetti a sette anni. (1875)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Having lost his father at the age of one, Camillo was a solitary child with an impetuous temperament, capable of sudden outbursts that he never grew out of.

Elvira Sacerdoti in una foto di fine Ottocento.Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

It was the tender care of his mother Elvira that helped Camillo and his sister Emma to grow up; they were brought up to be open-minded, with a cultural and political education that was ahead of its time.

Camillo Olivetti nel 1888. (1888)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo attended secondary school at the former Calchi-Taeggi College in Milan, which specialised in the humanities, before continuing on to the Royal Industrial Museum, now the Polytechnic University of Turin.

Camillo Olivetti con i vicini di Monte Navale nel 1886. (1886)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

We cannot rule out the possibility that Camillo chose to study science partly because of the prevailing mood of the times, in which technical and scientific knowledge was seen as a driving force behind social progress.

Diploma di Laurea di Camillo Olivetti. (1891)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo si laurea nel 1891 con il Professor Galileo Ferraris, ideatore del motore elettrico in corrente alternata, di cui trascrive le lezioni che conserva nella sua biblioteca personale.

La biblioteca di Camillo Olivetti (estremi cronologici 1864-1926)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo Olivetti a ventritré anni. (1892/1892)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

After graduating, Camillo immediately left for London, where he worked for two years in a precision mechanics plant, thus becoming familiar with factory work.

Una città inglese negli anni della rivoluzione industriale. (1892/1892)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Industrialisation was also transforming the urban structure of cities during this period, with waves of rural folk pouring into cities in search of work.

I delegati al Congresso Internazionale di Elettricità di Chicago. (1893)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

The trip to America

In 1893, having returned to Ivrea, he was summoned by Professor Ferraris, who wanted him by his side for the Chicago Electricity Congress. That year, the event coincided with the World's Columbian Exposition, the universal exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

Interni del Palazzo dell'Elettricità di Chicago durante la Columbus Fair del 1893. (1893)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Gruppo di studenti della Stanford University davanti al Campus Encina Hall. (1893)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Attending Stanford University       

The trip marked a turning point in the life of the young Olivetti, now twenty-five years old, who made the most of his time there by visiting Washington, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Albany, Boston and New York. Camillo even managed to take physics courses at Stanford University, where he attended a semester of lessons in "electrical engineering".  

Lettera scritta da Camillo Olivetti alla madre, Elvira Sacerdoti, il 12 maggio 1894 da Pittsburgh durante il suo primo viaggio negli Stati Uniti. (1894/1894)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Letters from America

The tale of his memorable meeting with Thomas Alva Edison, his visit to the latter's West Orange Laboratories in New Jersey and much more can be found in the dozens of letters that he sent to his family and friends, now preserved in the archives of the Adriano Olivetti Foundation.

Camillo Olivetti (a destra) con gli amici Dino Gatta e Michele Ferrero, compagni di università. (1894)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

The return to Ivrea

Back in Italy, he capitalised on the ideas that his trip to America had generated. With his university classmates Dino Gatta and Michele Ferrero, he founded a commercial enterprise that became the Italian representative for the American Victor bicycle and for Williams typewriters. But the future lay elsewhere. And Camillo sensed it. Summoning a group of young craftsmen from the Canavese region to his villa in Montenavale, he began teaching them the basics ... of electricity.

Domenico Burzio, al centro, con Prelle e Rey. (1920/1920)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

The pupil who showed the most promise was a young man named Domenico Burzio. The son of a forge worker, he formed a strong partnership with Camillo both personally and professionally.

Discorso di commemorazione di Camillo Olivetti nel primo anniversario della morte di Domenico Burzio. (1933/1933)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

When Burzio died in 1933, Camillo dedicated a fund to him to set up one of the first examples of a welfare service for factory workers: the Internal Solidarity Fund.

Volantino pubblicitario della C.G.S. (1894/1894)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

In 1896, he founded the company "Ing. C. Olivetti & C.", which he then transferred to Milan, changing the name to "C.G.S." (an acronym for "Centimetre, Gram, Second", a reference to the company's electrical measuring instruments).

La Fabbrica di Mattoni Rossi nel 1894. (1894/1894)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

La "mattoni rossi"
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Camillo designed the Ivrea site himself on land owned by the family. The factory was made of red brick topped with Guelph merlons just as Olivetti liked them: squared off and with no ornamentation.

Il Quarto Stato, olio su tela, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, 1902 (1902) by Giuseppe Pellizza da VolpedoFondazione Adriano Olivetti

Political commitment     

During his apprenticeship in London, Camillo had already seen first-hand the world of manual labour, which was bouncing back from struggles and reforms to demand fundamental rights. But it was undoubtedly in the United States, where he came into contact with the burgeoning rich industrial bourgeoisie, that Camillo developed his ideas and gained a clearer understanding of the biases of the Italian political system. In fact, it was on returning from Chicago that he decided to join the newly-formed Socialist party, the fundamental beliefs of which he shared with his friend Turati.

Luisa Revel Olivetti a Ivrea. (1899/1899)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

His wife Luisa Revel

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Camillo met Luisa Revel, the daughter of the Waldensian pastor of Ivrea. She was a very shy young woman who had been brought up to be obedient. Her family background was modest but sound and unexceptionable. Luisa was very reserved and almost fearful in front of strangers, but never suggestible. For Camillo, a rebel and anti-conformist, this stable yet meek figure was a safe haven that he could set sail from and return to, safe in the knowledge that the pair would always find themselves united and protected by a loving family that he liked to call the Olivetteria!

Luisa Revel con i primi cinque figli avuti da Camillo Olivetti. Adriano è in piedi a destra. (1908)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo and Luisa's marriage (1899) was a loving one, producing six children: Elena (1900), Adriano (1901), Massimo (1902), Silvia (1904), Lalla (1907), and Dino (1912).

Luisa Revel Olivetti in un ritratto di famiglia nella casa di Ivrea. (1907)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo entrusted Luisa with bringing up the children who, until they were eight, grew up "in the air, in the sun and in the meadows, so that their minds are not troubled ahead of time".

I fratelli Olivetti (Elena con Massimo a sinistra e Adriano a destra) nel bosco della casa di Ivrea. (1911/1911)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

The Olivetti children would go on to complete their primary schooling in just two years instead of five, with their progress followed at all times by their mother Luisa and their exclusively Waldensian tutors.

I fratelli Olivetti (Lalla e l'ultimogenito Dino) (1920)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

La storica fabbrica in mattoni rossi in Via Jervis a Ivrea. Prima sede della "Ing. C. Olivetti & C. - Prima fabbrica nazionale macchine per scrivere". (1908) by Camillo OlivettiFondazione Adriano Olivetti

Ing. C. Olivetti & C.   

Nel 1907 Camillo si dedica ad una nuova avventura imprenditoriale legando indissolubilmente il suo nome al destino della città di Ivrea. Da Milano trasferisce buona parte delle maestranze della C.G.S., nella storica fabbrica di mattoni rossi, dove in cima ai merli fa issare la scritta "Ing. C. Olivetti & C. Prima fabbrica nazionale macchine per scrivere".

Atto pubblico di costituzione della società in accomandita semplice "Ing. Olivetti e C." (1908)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

On 29th October 1908, the company "Ing. C. Olivetti & C." was officially registered by the Notary. Its initial capital was 350,000 lire: the majority was owned by Camillo Olivetti, while the rest was divided among 13 partners.

Pianta del convento acquistato da Camillo Olivetti e trasformato in residenza. (1908)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo moved with his family to a convent near the factory, an annex of the Church of S. Bernardino where the sixteenth-century frescoes by Gian Martino Spanzotti can still be seen today.

It was right there in the church, used by Camillo at the time as a barn and as his private study, that he developed the plans for the prototype of the first typewriter to be put into production.

Disegno tecnico di Camillo Olivetti. (1911) by Camillo OlivettiFondazione Adriano Olivetti

Following six months of study, Camillo devised the most demanding and original part of the machine, the typebar system.

Prima lettera scritta da Camillo Olivetti con la macchina per scrivere M1. (1908) by Camillo OlivettiFondazione Adriano Olivetti

The first letter written with the new machine was to his wife Luisa. It was 12th August 1908, but it would be many more months before the M1 (Macchina 1) could be considered finished.

Laura Curino in Camillo Olivetti alle radici di un sognoFondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo Olivetti e i suoi dipendenti all'Esposizione Universale di Torino del 1911. (1911)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

And it was his trusted collaborator Domenico Burzio, the first seated figure on the right, who finished setting up the first M1 typewriter in person at the Universal Exposition in Turin.

La M1, laddove 'M' sta per Macchina. Prima macchina per scrivere firmata Olivetti. (1911) by Camillo OlivettiFondazione Adriano Olivetti

The M1                             

A true mechanical gem. Technical and aesthetic quality – functionality and beauty – would be the hallmark of all Olivetti products from that moment on. The first Italian typewriter had 42 keys corresponding to 84 symbols. It was 37 cm wide, 41 cm deep, 26 cm high, and weighed 17 kg. It cost 550 lire, about 100 lire more than the American Remington. For this reason, the market was initially unconvinced, but it did not take long for this typewriter to establish itself as Italy's finest product; the orders, especially from public organisations, soon began to come thick and fast.

Bozzetto del marchio aziendale. (1911) by Camillo OlivettiFondazione Adriano Olivetti

Camillo himself designed the brand. When the thousandth machine was produced, he forged a pin for his employees. The first one, made of gold, was for his wife Luisa.

Manifesto pubblicitario della M1 disegnato da Teodoro Wolf Ferrari. (1912/1912) by Teodoro Wolf FerrariFondazione Adriano Olivetti

To publicise the M1, Camillo called on the painter Teodoro W. Ferrari, whose poster depicted the emblem of classicism and the symbol of modernity: literary and technological supremacy together in one image.

Dipendenti Olivetti all'uscita dalla fabbrica. (1913/1913)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

In 1913, Olivetti had around 110 staff on its books. An average of 23 machines were being produced each week.
Everything seemed to be going well, but then the Great War came along.

Interno fabbrica Olivetti. (1914)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Nel 1914 fa fare al suo primo figlio maschio Adriano, il suo ingresso in fabbrica. Come operaio semplice. Aveva solo 13 anni e fu per lui una tortura dello spirito...
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Ritratto della famiglia Olivetti intorno al 1918. (1918/1918)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

The Great War      

In August 1914, Camillo warned his workers that the company had no more money. The banks were no longer giving out advances, and Olivetti was forced to halve the working week from 60 hours to 30. Many workers – all those who had been with Camillo since the beginning – decided not to collect their pay until the situation had recovered. It was a powerful demonstration of trust and emotional involvement in factory life. Fortunately, the break enforced by the war did not affect the progress of production; orders, employees and profits were quick to increase.

Interno della Fabbrica di Mattoni Rossi (1916)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

In 1920, the M1 was replaced by a new model, the M20. With a fixed carriage and smaller dimensions than the M1, the M20 was presented at the Universal Exposition in Brussels.

Gruppo maestranze Olivetti. (1918)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

In 1924, the company had 400 employees and the Ivrea factory was producing 4,000 machines a year; in 1926, 8,000 machines and 500 employees; in 1929, production reached 13,000 machines.

Alongside Camillo at all times was his trusted colleague Burzio, who managed the workshop with a firm hand but also with a generous heart that he opened up to the company's many employees.

Operai caricano materiali per la spedizione all'interno dello stabilimento Ing. C. Olivetti & Co., Ivrea. (1920/1920)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

The company began a period of exporting its products and opening up to the international market. Brussels became the centre of a distribution network with dealers and retailers all over the world.

Manifesto Hispano Olivetti (1929/1929)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

But Olivetti's most significant move on the international scene during the interwar period came in Spain. On 22nd January 1929, the Hispano Olivetti Company was established.

Prodotti Olivetti in partenza per tutto il mondo.Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

In the 1930s, Olivetti extended its commercial and production network in Europe and its sales network (through licensed representatives) in South America (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay).

Ritratto di famiglia nel bosco della casa di Ivrea. (1920)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

In 1938, Camillo, who was exempt from some of Italy's racial laws due to his services to the country, decided to step down as president of Olivetti in favour of his son Adriano (the first figure standing on the right).

Camillo Olivetti in gita. (1920)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Having taken this decision, he did not step away from the factory completely but continued to run his beloved machine tools department and to watch over the large workshop from a distance

Camillo Olivetti con la moglie Luisa. (1942)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

Following the armistice of 8th September 1943, he was forced to leave his home in Ivrea. He sought refuge in the Biella area, where he died on 4th December.

Camillo Olivetti (1940)Fondazione Adriano Olivetti

The pioneer

Camillo Olivetti è la radice di quella visione imprenditoriale e umana, unica e universale, che il figlio Adriano ha lasciato all'umanità attraverso Ivrea, modello sostenibile di città industriale del XX secolo. 

Credits: Story

mostra a cura di Francesca Limana


realizzata in collaborazione con:

Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti, Ivrea
Associazione Culturale Muse, Torino
Associazione Spille d'oro, Ivrea
Edizioni di Comunità, Roma/Ivrea
Fondazione Natale Capellaro, Ivrea
Gabriele Vacis
Laura Curino
Museo del Novecento, Milano
Museo Laboratorio Tecnologic@mente, Ivrea
Stanford University Archive
University of California

L'archivio Camillo Olivetti è depositato dalla Fondazione Adriano Olivetti presso l’Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti di Ivrea. La biblioteca personale.


Per approfondire:

Bruno Caizzi, "Camillo e Adriano Olivetti", UTET, 1962;
Laura Curino, Gabriele Vacis, "Camillo Olivetti. Alle radici di un sogno", Edizioni di Comunità, 2017;
Dino Alessio Garino, "Camillo Olivetti e il Canavese tra Ottocento e Novecento", libricossavellaealessi, 2004;
Camillo Olivetti, "Tre scritti sulla fabbrica, la formazione e la solidarietà", Edizioni di Comunità, 2016
Camillo Olivetti, "Lettere Americane", Fondazione Adriano Olivetti, 1997

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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