When I opened this book, I didn’t expect to blog about. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from it, other than a profile of a typewriter manufacturer. But no, The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti by Meryle Secrest, includes far more than hipster paperweights – spies, romance, and possibly murder play into a rich, family saga stretches through both World Wars and into the future.  

If you’re an American who doesn’t remember anything before the 90s (like me and even those are scant), you might not realize how Olivetti dominated the typewriter market. The story here begins with patriarch Adriano Olivetti’s purchase of their biggest typewriter competitor, Underwood, just before his sudden death on a train. Adriano Olivetti, through savvy business practices and strong corporate culture, grew the family typewriter business to the height of its power, meanwhile trying to promote “capitalist socialism” in an increasingly facist Italy. Adriano’s life story takes up the bulk of this narrative, though significant portions also detail his seemingly hapless son, Roberto, and genius inventor father, Camillo. Ah, and Adriano tried to buddy up to American spymaster Allen Dulles.

I love it when Allen Dulles pokes his head into a book unexpectedly. The first term paper I ever wrote for B.A. in History was on Dulles. He was the younger brother of Secretary of State and airport namesake, John Foster Dulles. He was sneaky, smart, and diabolical. This guy set up the CIA as we know it, which means his life was one big James Bond movie. He got involved with Olivetti during World War II, but it seems that the real danger came when Olivetti started building a computer.

Olivetti built mechanical office calculators in addition to typewriters. After World War II, they began tinkering in electronics and devised an electronic calculator with huge memory for the time. It could remember equations and answers better than anything else on the market. NASA used it to send astronauts to the moon. So why isn’t Olivetti dominating the computer market today? A series of untimely – Secrest claims suspicious – deaths killed off the firm’s interest in electronics. Secrest blames Dulles and the CIA, claiming that Olivetti’s ties to socialism spooked the spooks who wanted every possible advantage of the Communists.

Interspersed with all this intrigue lies a family of characters that belong in Arrested Development. Brothers fight for CEO positions, shareholding aunts ruin ambitions, and spouses cheat their way out of one marriage and into another. I expected dry history, and got much, much more. Unexpectedly fascinating.

Page count: 320

Three out of five stars.

Cover art for The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti which features an early Olivetti computer.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com