Olivetti Underwood Divisumma 24
By Bruce Flamm, © 1998
This article is a continuation of a series of reports on mechanical, electro-mechanical, and early electronic calculators. I believe that history is far more interesting if you hear it from someone who was actually there. So my articles generally include some background information followed by an extensive interview with someone who spent a large part of their life working on calculators.
In about 1910 Underwood began equipping their typewriters with an adding and subtracting device. In the decades that followed. Underwood made many types of calculating devices. After WWII Underwood joined forces with the Italian company, Olivetti, to become Olivetti-Underwood. By the early 1960's Olivetti-Underwood was producing an entire line of electro-mechanical calculators.
Most (perhaps all) of their machines printed on paper tape and used ten-key rather than full-keyboard data entry. The ten-key format was similar to today's calculators while the full-keyboard machines had a column of ten data entry keys (zero through nine) for each digit. Most of the other big calculator companies of the 1960's (Friden, Marchant/SCM, and Monroe) produced mainly non-printing rotary-type calculators often with full-keyboard data entry. These beautiful machines are now interesting to collectors but created problems for users who had to painstakingly record every answer. By the mid 1960's Olivetti-Underwood and Victor-Comptometer took the lead with "modern" ten-key machines that could also record answers on paper tape. The Olivetti-Underwood M line of calculators sold for about $400-$600 and the D line (Divisumma) sold for about $600-$800 (multiply by about three to adjust to today's dollars). While not as exciting to look at as the Fridens and Marchants, these machines were quite functional. But the mechanical party was almost over. By the late 1960's electronic desktop calculators (no moving parts) began to flood the market and by the early 1970's the wonderful electro-mechanical calculators were history.
What follows is an interview with Mr. Jay H. Respler who worked for Olivetti-Underwood during the peak of the electro-mechanical calculator industry in the 1960's and later founded his own calculator sales and service company.
Jay, when, where, and why did you start working for Olivetti-Underwood?
May 1962. I was looking for a job and saw two ads. One involved traveling throughout Long Island for some small company. The other was to do repairs for Olivetti-Underwood in New York City. That job offered a lower salary but I thought it might have better future potential. With about 35 others, I took a series of tests. 8 were chosen from this group. The others all had superior mechanical aptitude. When called for an interview, I was told I didn't do well on the mechanical section, but did very well on abstract reasoning. Based on that, they would take a chance by sending me for training. Because of their mechanical ability, most of the others breezed through training. I found it very difficult. A few flunked out, but I managed to pass the course.
How did you get into working on these? For instance, did you have experience working on other calculators or did they train you ?
The training was at Underwood factory in Hartford, Connecticut for 2 months. After that I was certified to fix adding machines and calculators. I had never even used any such machine before. Some other new hires went to work on
typewriters. I was more impressed with calculators than typewriters. I thought typewriters didn't do anything and were not too interesting. Calculators seemed to be more useful. I was always interested in astronomy and
observing satellites. That involved some tedious calculations. I was now working on machines that could do a multiplication or division in less than half a minute.
Amazing! The Divisumma 24 calculator sold for $750.00. Even used trade-ins were $250. While I would have loved to have a machine that could calculate, on a $60 per week salary, I knew I could never afford to own such a machine. I would have to be satisfied using machines that I worked on to do some of my calculations.
Where was the Olivetti-Underwood company located?
US headquarters were at 1 Park Ave in New York City. The New York branch was around the corner on 23rd Street.
Wasn't Olivetti an Italian company? When did they merge with Undenvood or did one company buy the other?
Underwood had been the major typewriter company but had started having some problems. Olivetti bought Underwood in order to expand in the US market. After the war, this was the first major example of a European company buying an American company. A few years later, Olivetti bought the calculator division from Smith Corona Marchant. Since then, they also acquired Hermes and Adler-Royal.
I think Monroe and Friden were the main competitors. How did Olivetti-Underwood people feel about them?
Those machines were mainly non-printing rotary calculators. I never considered them serious competitors. All Olivettis were printing machines. We didn't think most businesses could use non-printers. Printers were much better for checking work. The only company I thought even came close in market penetration was Victor.
Where did Olivetti-Underwood make the machines?
For years, all machines were made in Italy.
How did one learn to work on a machine with thousands of moving parts?
Ah, that was the key! With typewriters, I thought, you pushed a key. And through a series of direct links, a typebar went up and hit the paper. What could be hard about that? On a calculator, pressing '=' started a whole chain of events. You had to learn what the events were in order to determine where a problem was arising. Have you ever looked through the service book for the Divisumma calculator?
No, but I have repair manuals for many other mechanical calculators and I know exactly what you 're talking about. Some of them are over 300 pages long and include hundreds of complex diagrams! The complexity of these electro-mechanical monsters brings me to mv next question. What was going on in the mechanical calculator industry in the late 1960's as the electronics started moving in? A feeling of doom?
I was never concerned about display-only calculators. In the '60s, I was offered the chance to work on a new thing called programmable desktop printing computers. I think Olivetti may have been the first to offer such machines. By then, I was doing well working on calculators, usually got work done ahead of schedule, and could often finish the work day a 'little' early. Being a hot new product, computers had a lot more attention paid to them and such shorter hours were not as easily available, so I didn't bother working on them. Then printing electronic calculators came out. The early one was a couple thousand dollar monster machine that I didn't care to get involved with either. Finally, compact 4-function electronic calculators came out that only weighed 50 pounds or so, and were as almost as small as a Selectric typewriter. At that time I started working on electronic calculators.
I remember a discussion with a friend in the mid-70s. He suggested I work on typewriters in addition to calculators. I said there were more calculators than I could ever work on in my whole life, so why bother doing typewriters also. Calculator repairs would keep me busy forever. I may have erred slightly. Little did we think that someday, even typewriter repairs would no longer be enough to make a living!
Did you sell Olivetti's in addition to servicing them ?
After a few years at Olivetti, most of us were given our own territories, each of roughly equal machine population. I got what was considered one of the hardest areas to get along in, the Garment Center. Zip code 10018. I soon built up that area to double the number of machines that I had started out with, so my territory was cut down. I built that up and got an even smaller area. I used to refer all sales to the area sales rep. The way for me to get new machines to service was to get customers to buy from us rather than competitors. New sales reps came in and we couldn't agree on sales policies.
To keep sales up, I started selling machines myself. To expand that business, I moved from a Brooklyn apartment to a house in Freehold, New Jersey and commuted by bus to New York. Olivetti had been slow moving into electronic calculators and had lost business. To avoid repeating that problem, they were the first to really start selling electronic typewriters. I got into servicing them as soon as I could. Sales expanded and started interfering with service. I left Olivetti service to expand my own company. Advanced Business Machines Co., as the Olivetti agency for the area. I picked up Smith Corona for their fine portable typewriter line. Other brands were added over the years.
What do you recall about your years of making service calls on these wonderful mechanical calculators.
A few repairs from the 60s-70s stick out in my mind. At American Standard headquarters on 40th street across from the NY Public Library, I had a call on a Multisumma 22 adder. It was frozen and I couldn't get it to budge in any direction. Finally, wedged under the platen, I found a bag of sugar wedged in the parts! Now how do you get a bag of sugar into a machine without knowing it?
My territory was the garment center where I was working in a back room filled with, what else, garments. A big fashion show was going on out front and this was the room where the models had to change. It was rather difficult trying to keep my head down and concentrate on repairs with the in and out parade going on in front of me. It seemed awfully warm in there!
One specific Divisumma repair took hours. Every once in a while it calculated wrong. I kept breaking and remaking every adjustment in the book. No progress. I don't know how I found it, and didn't really think it was the cause of the trouble, but I removed a speck of dust about the size of a period from a cam surface. To my amazement, every calculation after that was correct. I finally left, still finding it hard to believe that that tiny speck could cause so much trouble. I never had another call like that. I think I still have a photocopy of the culprit.
On a November day, I had a Divisumma "up on its back" in an office at Chase Plaza near Wall Street. A woman came in exclaiming "the president had been shot". By the time I left the office, buildings had black bunting draped around them. It was extremely rare that I missed a day of work, so I went in as usual the next day. Streets were empty, and my office building was dark and locked. I turned around, went home, and spent the rest of the day glued to the TV.
One of the best things about working in New York was the interesting people and places you get to see. A service call out of my regular area was to the home of Dick Cavett. I figured all famous people were rich and had spectacular homes. I was amazed to see that the inside of his house looked just like a 'real' person's house. Of course, the houses in that area of mid-Manhattan cost a bit more than most people's houses.
Another interesting and friendly customer was, I believe, Roger Reeves. While working on a machine in his home, I saw photos of him with President Eisenhower. He said they were friends. Stories I read later on indicated that Reeves had a major public relations firm. He was instrumental in getting Ike elected. His firm was responsible for many of the most famous commercials of the time.
On a service call on 72nd St. near Broadway, I found myself in a small cluttered office with sheet music and photos of musicians all over the place. We got to talking about the 'father of the blues' W. T. Handy, who wrote such classics as St. Louis Blues. Turns out this gentleman was Handy's son Wyer. He used an Olivetti cross-footing calculator to keep track of world-wide residuals on all of Handy's songs that are still being played. I was there several times over the years and we got pretty friendly. Wyer was a pleasant host and would often order sandwiches for us to share.
When a street was named after W T Handy, I was invited to the ceremonies. When I watched the movie, the W T Handy Story with Nat King Cole in the starring role, it was strange to think that I knew, and was friendly with his son. One of the sadder things about leaving New York is missing some of these people.
I would like to thank Mr. Resplerfor taking the time to share his memories with us. I'm always looking for people to interview for future articles in this series. If you worked in the calculator or adding machine industry before 1970 and would like to share your memories with our readers please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (909) 353-1326. Future generations will thank you for helping to preserve this wonderful segment of scientific history! — Bruce
This story is part of Bruce Flamm's continuing research into early 1960s electronic calculator history. If you can help with any additional information, please contact Bruce. Bruce is co-author, along with Guy Ball, of the Collector's Guide to Pocket Calculators.
© Text & photographs copyright Nigel Tout 2000-2021 except where noted otherwise.