The Classic Typewriter Page

Olivetti M1

This article was written by Berthold Kerschbaumer
and translated by Richard Polt

At first glance this seems to be one of the completely normal, unremarkable, four-row, standard typewriters with decimal tabulators that appeared in the parade of Underwood imitators. However, we have here a very special machine, which only very few people have ever seen face to face. In addition to some unusual technical features to which I will return later, the Olivetti M1 marks the beginning of the industrial production of typewriters in Italy, and is the foundation of the Olivetti company, one of the few which is still producing typewriters even today.

Closely connected with the history of the M1, naturally, is its inventor, the engineer Camillo Olivetti (1868-1943). He set out on his first voyage to America in 1892, together with his teacher Galileo Ferrari, after receiving a degree in electrical engineering; it was probably on this trip that he first encountered typewriters. He stayed for two years as an assistant in the electrical engineering department of Stanford University. Upon his return to Italy, Camillo Olivetti practiced commercial law on behalf of some American products, such as the Williams typewriter, and later, with his friends Gatta and Ferrero, opened a electric meter factory in his hometown of Ivrea. The factory was relocated to Milan in 1904. In 1908 Olivetti came back to his hometown again, with the first preliminary studies and sketches for a typewriter already in his suitcase. In the same year, he undertook his second trip to America, in order to familiarize himself with the production methods and techniques of the new typewriters. In the spring of 1909, the limited partnership Ing. C. Olivetti & Co., established shortly before, began to operate; but it was only in the Turin World's Fair of 1911 that the first two typewriters of the M1 type were presented to the public at large. In the same year, the company won its first sizeable commission: 100 machines for the ministry of the navy. In 1912 a large commission for the postal ministry was secured, and by 1914, 100 workers were producing four machines a day. The First World War brought the production of the M1 to a near standstill; the company was dedicated to war production instead. In contrast to many other firms, the Olivetti company was not a war profiteer, for Camillo Olivetti received no illegitimate profits from this production.

Olivetti's design and publicity fill many books -- but their beginning was rather conservative. The first poster for the M1 was designed in 1912 by Teodoro Wolf Ferrari, and features the Italian national poet Dante Alighieri, who seems to offer the M1 with a serious mien. In the design of the M1, too, elegant restraint was a principle laid down by C. Olivetti himself. His maxim was: "A special value is laid upon the form of the machine. A typewriter must not be a showpiece for the salon, overloaded with tastelessness. It must look sober, and at the same time work elegantly." -- This was the beginning of the prizewinning Olivetti design program.

The machine itself is a four-row frontstroke typewriter with a Wagner mechanism and simple carriage shift (Ernst Martin claims the machine had a basket shift, but this was first implemented in the M20). The keyboard has 42 keys which write 84 characters. The shift mechanism and the carriage, which can be removed upon loosening two screws, are mounted on ball bearings. Each typebar is also individually mounted and adjustable (the M1 had no type segment). The motion of the typebars is due to a solid linkage, which upon the striking of a key turns on its own axis and transfers this motion to the type by means of a lever. The decimal tabulator is unusual in that, in contrast to other machines, it is located on the front of the carriage. But most M1s were offered without a tabulator.

The automatic ribbon reversal used an eyelet inserted at the end of the ribbon, which tripped the reversing mechanism. The ribbon incorporating an eyelet is found on all subsequent Olivetti machines. The ribbon color selector, found on the right front of the machine, does not offer a position for writing stencils. The margin mechanism is an original solution: when the right margin is reached, a lever to which a rubber plug is attached is thrust in front of the type guide and thus prevents further writing.
The M1's solid, stable construction can be seen most clearly when you look at the machine's underside. Each shaft was individually adjustable at several points -- a mechanical luxury which was no longer used in later models.

A total of about 6000 machines were manufactured up to 1920. On these machines, the first two digits of the serial number indicate the year of manufacture. In 1920 the successor model, the M20, came on the market.

Typewriter Spotlights


Main Menu