Business computing seminar in Lille

Olivetti Elea 9003. Detail. Photo: Elisabetta Mori

Pierre Mounier-Kuhn
(CNRS, Université Paris-Sorbonne & Centre Alexandre Koyré)
De la mécanographie à l’Informatique de gestion

Elisabetta Mori (Middlesex University, London)
From Academia to Business: LEO computers and Olivetti.
Two case studies in the early European Computer Industry

Histoire et Philosophie de l’informatique et du calcul
MESHS, 2 Rue des Canonniers, 59000 Lille

Elisabetta Mori
From Academia to Business: LEO computers and Olivetti.
Two case studies in the early European Computer Industry

A common pattern in the growth and development of early Western European computer manufacturers is the collaboration between academia and entrepreneurship. Very often early European computer companies established a joint venture with an academic environment – a university or a research institute. This kind of collaboration was crucial to both projects: it usually involved not just financial help but also an exchange of engineers and employees. The aim of the presentation is to make a comparison between two of these cases: LEO Computers and Cambridge University, Olivetti and the University of Pisa. LEO is the acronym of Lyons Electronic Office, a series of British computers manufactured for business applications by the catering firm J. Lyons & Co. between 1947 and 1963. In 1947 Lyons managers set up an agreement with Cambridge University: in exchange for a sponsorship, they were allowed to copy and adapt the EDSAC computer – designed by Cambridge University for scientific purposes – for their business applications. After a failed agreement with the University of Rome in the early 1950s, Olivetti established a joint venture with University of Pisa in 1955. Olivetti aimed to enter the computer business with a general-purpose mainframe. while Pisa University wanted to build a single machine for the computing needs of the University staff. The parallel outcomes of the two projects were: Olivetti ELEA 9003, serially produced from 1959; Calcolatrice Elettronica Pisana (CEP) officially inaugurated at Pisa University in 1961.
 Both Lyons and Olivetti gave up the mainframe computer business in 1963 and 1964 respectively: LEO Computers merged with the computer interests of English Electric; Olivetti’s computer department was sold to General Electric. The comparison between the Olivetti and LEO cases offers an insight on the developments, technologies, strategies and failures in the European computer industry in the 1950s and 1960s.