Adriano Olivetti (1901-1960) was known worldwide during his lifetime as the Italian manufacturer of Olivetti typewriters, calculators, and computers.
Olivetti was an entrepreneur and innovator who transformed shop-like operations into a modern factory. In and out of the factory, he both practiced and preached the utopian system of "the community movement," but he was not an astute enough politician to have a mass following.
The Olivetti empire was begun by his father Camillo, an Italian of Spanish origin. His ancestors escaping the Inquisition arrived in Turin around 1600. Initially, the "factory" (30 workers) concentrated on electric measurement devices. By 1908 (25 years after Remington in the United States) Olivetti started to produce typewriters.
Camillo, an engineer and innovator, believed that his children could get a better education at home. Adriano's formative years were spent under the tutelage of his mother, an educated and sober woman. Also, as a socialist, Camillo emphasized the non-differentiation between manual and intellectual work. His children, during their time away from study, worked with and under the same conditions as his workers. The discipline and sobriety Camillo imposed on his family induced rebellion in Adriano's adolescence manifested by a dislike of "his father's" workplace and by his studying at a polytechnic school of subjects other than the mechanical engineering his father wanted.
Nevertheless, after graduation in 1924 he joined the company for a short while. When he became undesirable to Mussolini's Fascist regime, his father sent him to the United States to learn the roots of American industrial power. For the same reasons he later went to England. Upon his return he married Paola Levi, a sister of his good friend, a marriage that produced three children but did not last long.
His visit to the United States at various plants and especially at Remington convinced Adriano that productivity is a function of the organizational system. With the approval of father Camillo, he organized the production system at Olivetti on a quasi-Taylorian mode and transformed the shop into a factory with departments and divisions. Possibly as a result of this reorganization output per man-hour doubled within five years. Olivetti for the first time sold half of the typewriters used in Italy in 1933. Adriano Olivetti shared with his workers the productivity gains by increasing salaries, fringe benefits, and services.
His success in business did not diminish his idealism. In the 1930s he developed an interest in architecture, as well as urban and community planning. He supervised a housing plan for the workers at Ivrea (a suburb of Turin, where the Olivetti plant is still located) and a zoning proposal for the adjacent Valle d'Aosta. Under Fascism, patronizing workers at work and at home was in line with the corporative design of the regime. While Adriano showed distaste for the regime, he joined the Fascist Party and became a Catholic. Yet during World War II he participated in the underground antifascist movement, was jailed, and at the end sought refuge in Switzerland. There he was in close contact with the intellectual emigrees and he was able to develop further his socio-philosophy of the community movement.
During the immediate post-war years the Olivetti empire expanded rapidly, only to be briefly on the verge of bankruptcy after the acquisition of Underwood in the late 1950s. During this period, first calculators and then computers replaced the typewriter as a prime production focus. Adriano shared his time between business pursuits and attempts to practice and spread the utopian ideal of community life. His belief was that people who respect each other and their environment can avoid war and poverty. His utopian idea was similar to that preached by Charles Fourier and Robert Owen during the previous century.
In his enterprises, Adriano Olivetti's attempts at utopia may be translated in practice as actions of an enlightened boss or a form of corporatism. He decreased the hours of work and increased salaries and fringe benefits. By 1957 Olivetti workers were the best paid of all in the metallurgical industry and Olivetti workers showed the highest productivity. His corporatism also succeeded in having his workers accept a company union not tied to the powerful national metallurgical trade unions.
During the 1950s, in a limited way, the community movement succeeded politically in Ivrea. (Camillo was even at one time mayor of Ivrea.) But the utopia at the factory and in Italy at large began withering away even before Adriano's death in 1960.
Adriano Olivetti's era saw great changes in Italian business and in industrial relations. New organizational methods were sought and humanistic idealism spread during the cruel time of World War II as well as during the difficult post-war years. The utopia of Olivetti could not have easily survived, but it helped induce the rapid reconversion of Italy's industry from war to peace-time production.
Most of the biographical sources describing Olivetti are in Italian: Valerio Ochetto, Adriano Olivetti (Milan, 1985); M. Fabbri, A. Greco, L. Menozzi, E. Valeriani, editors, Architetura urbanistica in Italia nel dopoguerra (Reggio Calabria, 1986); Bruno Caizzi, Gli Olivetti (Turin, 1962); and Renzo De Felice, Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo (Turin, 1961). Adriano Olivetti, "Corrispondenza per gli Stati Uniti" (Milan, 1953) was translated as Italy, Community versus Communism (1953). Some of Olivetti's writings were published in English as Society, State, Community (London, 1954). □