Rediscovering the Remarkable Engineers Behind Olivetti’s ELEA 9003

Post Syndicated from Jean Kumagai original

A new graphic novel explores the forgotten history of the ELEA 9003, one of the first transistorized digital computers

The Chinese-Italian engineer Mario Tchou was, by all accounts, brilliant. Born and raised in Italy and educated in the United States, he led the Olivetti company’s ambitious effort to build a completely transistorized mainframe computer in the late 1950s. During Mario’s tenure, Olivetti successfully launched the ELEA 9003 mainframe and founded one of the first transistor companies. And yet, even in Italy, his story is not well known.

The historical obscurity of such an important figure troubled Ciaj Rocchi and Matteo Demonte, a husband-and-wife team of illustrators based in Milan. And so they created a short graphic novel about Tchou and the Olivetti computer project, as well as a short animation [shown at top]. The graphic novel appeared in the 12 April issue of La Lettura, the Italian cultural magazine, where Demonte and Rocchi both work.

If Tchou’s isn’t exactly a household name, how did the pair come to learn about him? Rocchi says they might have also remained in the dark—if not for the birth of their son in 2007. “We wanted to make sure he knew about his family and where he came from,” Rocchi says. Their family tree includes Demonte’s grandfather, who had emigrated to Milan from China in 1931. “I thought, if I don’t write this down for my son, it will be lost,” Rocchi recalls.