Retrotechtacular: Mechanical Arithmetic For The Masses

Last month we carried a piece looking at the development of the 8-bit home computer market through the lens of the British catalogue retailer Argos and their perennial catalogue of dreams. As an aside, we mentioned that the earliest edition from 1975 contained some of the last mechanical calculators on the market, alongside a few early electronic models. This month it’s worth returning to those devices, because though they are largely forgotten now, they were part of the scenery and clutter of a typical office for most of the century.

The Summa's internals, showing the register on the right and the type wheels on the left.
The Summa’s internals, showing the register on the right and the type wheels on the left.

Somewhere in storage I have one of the models featured in the catalogue, an Olivetti Summa Prima. I happened upon it in a dumpster as a teenager looking for broken TVs to scavenge for parts, cut down a pair of typewriter ribbon reels to fit it, and after playing with it for a while added it to my store of random tech ephemera. It’s a compact and stylish desktop unit from about 1970, on its front is a numerical keypad, top is a printer with a holder for a roll of receipt paper and a typewriter-style rubber roller, while on its side is a spring-loaded handle from which it derives its power. It can do simple addition and subtraction in the old British currency units, and operating it is a simple case of punching in a number, pulling the handle, and watching the result spool out on the paper tape. Its register appears to be a set of rotors advanced or retarded by the handle for either addition or subtraction, and its printing is achieved by a set of print bars sliding up to line the correct number with the inked ribbon. For me in 1987 with my LCD Casio Scientific it was an entertaining mechanical curiosity, but for its operators twenty years earlier it must have represented a significant time saving.

The history of mechanical calculators goes back over several hundred years to Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, and over that time they evolved through a series of inventions into surprisingly sophisticated machines that were capable of handling financial complications surprisingly quickly. The Summa was one of the last machines available in great numbers, and even as it was brought to market in the 1960s its manufacturer was also producing one of the first desktop-sized computers. Its price in that 1975 Argos catalogue is hardly cheap but around the same as an electronic equivalent, itself a minor miracle given how many parts it contains and how complex it must have been to manufacture.

We’ve put two Summa Prima videos below the break. T.the first is a contemporary advert for the machine, and the second is a modern introduction to the machine partially narrated by a Brazilian robot, so consider translated subtitles. In that second video you can see something of its internals as the bare mechanism is cranked over for the camera and some of the mechanical complexity of the device becomes very obvious. It might seem odd to pull a obsolete piece of office machinery from a dumpster and hang onto it for three decades, but I’m very glad indeed that a 1980s teenage me did so. You’re probably unlikely to stumble upon one in 2019, but should you do so it’s a device that’s very much worth adding to your collection.

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Retrotechtacular: Olivetti Net3

If you sign up for a European hacker camp such as CCC Camp in Germany or SHA Camp in the Netherlands, you’ll see among the items recommended to take with you, a DECT handset. DECT, or Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications, refers to the set of standards that lie behind the digital cordless telephones that are ubiquitous across Europe and some countries elsewhere in the world. These standards cover more than just the simple two-way telephone calls through a base station that most Europeans use them for though, they define a fully functional multi-cell 3G phone and data networking system. This means that an event like SHA Camp can run its own digital phone network without having to implement cell towers.

Olivetti promotional net3 image
Olivetti promotional Net3 image

Reading the history of DECT, there is the interesting snippet that the first DECT product on the market in 1993 was not a telephone but a networking device, and incidentally the first wireless LAN product on the European market. Olivetti’s Net3 provided 512kB/s wireless networking to a base station with Ethernet or Token Ring interfaces for connection to a LAN. In its original form it was an internal card for a desktop PC coupled to a bulky external box containing radio circuitry and antenna, but its later incarnations included a PCMCIA card with a much smaller antenna box. The half-megabit speed seems tiny by today’s standards, but in the pre-multimedia world of 1993 would have been perfectly adequate for a Novell Netware fileserver and an HP Laserjet 4.

Heinz Wolff swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional picture.
[Heinz Wolff] swallows a condom in another Olivetti promotional image.

Mystery Technology

So DECT is an interesting technology that can do more than just a simple cordless phone, and its first product was unexpectedly somewhat groundbreaking. It then becomes even more interesting to find that Net3 has left very little evidence of itself to find that can be found on the Web, and learning more about it requires a little detective work.

The Wikipedia entry has the bare bones, but it speaks volumes about the obscure nature of the product that the encyclopedia’s only picture of it is a tiny thumbnail-sized promotional image of the PCMCIA variant in a chunky mid-1990s laptop. A further search reveals a 1993 British Olivetti staff newsletter (PDF) carrying another promotional image of the desktop Net3 device featuring the then-well-known TV personality and academic [Heinz Wolff] demonstrating the technology bizarrely by swallowing a DECT medical instrumentation transponder wrapped in a condom. Some press releases remain in the fossilized remnants of the 1990s internet, and a Net3 design team member’s LinkedIn page led us to the patent covering the system, but that’s pretty much it. We can’t even find a high enough resolution image of a Net3 card for our featured image slot.

Wireless Things Before Their Time

It’s obvious that Net3 and DECT networking as a high-end wireless LAN before a need for wireless LANs existed never made it, but what is perhaps more interesting is that it seems to have left no legacy for other more mundane applications. We are in the midst of an explosion of hype around the Internet of Things and it seems new short-range wireless networking technologies appear almost daily, yet the world seems to have overlooked this robust, low power, and mature wireless network with its own dedicated frequency allocation that many of us already have in our homes. It seems particularly surprising that among the many DECT base stations on sale at your local consumer electronics store there are none with an Internet connection, and there is no market for IoT devices that use DECT as their backhaul.

In the open-source community there has been some work on DECT. The OsmocomDECT project for example provides a DECT software stack, and deDECTed.org states an aim to “better understand DECT and its security and to create an Open Source implementation of the DECT standard”. But there seems to have been very little hardware work in our community on the standard, for example there are no DECT-specific projects on Hackaday.io.

Net3 then was a product before its time, a herald of what was to come, from that twilight period when the Web was definitely a thing but had yet to become the world’s universal information repository. Public wireless networking was still several years in the future, so there was no imperative for road warriors to equip themselves with a Net3 card or for computer manufacturers — not even Olivetti themselves! — to incorporate the technology. It thus didn’t take the world by storm, and unusually for such a ground-breaking computer product there remains little legacy for it beyond a rarely-used feature of the protocol Europeans use for their cordless phones.

Did you have a Net3 card? Do you still have one? Let us know in the comments.

Retrotechtacular: A Desktop Computer From 1965

About eight years before the Xerox built the Alto at PARC and over a decade before the Apple ][ premiered, Italian business equipment manufacturer Olivetti produced a bona fide desktop personal computer. When Olivetti debuted this typewriter-sized marvel in 1965 at a business convention in New York City, people were in absolute awe that this tiny, self-contained unit could perform the same types of functions as the hulking room-sized mainframes of the time. Some were sure that it was simply a small input device for a much bigger machine hiding behind the curtain.

But the revolutionary Olivetti Programma 101 was no joke. It performed standard four-banger operations and could handle square root and absolute value calculations. The Olivetti had 16 jump instructions as well as 16 conditional jump instructions, which put it firmly in state machine territory. Programs could be printed on a roll of paper or stored long-term on long magnetic cards.

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