Help: Does Anyone Know the Story Behind This Giant Machine? (Updates!)
Image: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty

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Help: Does Anyone Know the Story Behind This Giant Machine? (Updates!)

This photo looks like an amazing piece of computer history. But nobody’s sure where it came from, not even the photo company that controls its rights.

A little over a month ago, I started writing this great column for Motherboard called Re-Exposure, which highlights fascinating historic tech photographs like Jay Leno taking part in an AOL chat, the Atari-linked history of Chuck E. Cheese, and Andy Warhol's excellent taste in computers.

But sometimes the photos on these wire services are so old that the details are nonexistent. Case in point: Above, this wonderful, amazing photo of a gigantic calculator inside a control room at a textile factory. It's so huge that it doesn't look real—like they would've been better off with an abacus instead. It looks like a science fiction version of computers pulled directly out of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

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It's sitting in the Getty Images archive as an editorial photo, so it happened. But this house-size calculator—if that's even what it is—doesn't appear to exist out the confines of this photo.

Here's my best guess about the photo: In 1959, the Italian company Olivetti, then known for its typewriters, created one of the earliest mainframe computers. Italy's first one, in fact. And the Olivetti Elea 9003, as it turned out, was given to a textile firm named Merino, which is renowned for its wool.

Looking for answers, I reached out to a wide variety of sources. The Woolmark Company, which owns the Merino brand, never got back to me. But the museum that houses Olivetti's history did, as did Mondadori Portfolio, the Italian photo house that owns this picture. Neither could offer any additional insight: The only info about the picture that Mondadori had was on the back of the photo, which the Getty caption sums up: "Two Italian engineers watching a big electronic calculator placed into the control room of a textile industry. Italy, 1960s."

And Lucia Alberton of the Associazione Archive Storico Olivetti (Olivetti Historical Archive Association) could offer no information about the photo, other than this: "I can surely tell you that the computer you can see in the picture is not the Elea 9003."

The mystery behind this photo is eating at me a little, so I'm gonna release this out to the world. Motherboard readers, can you tell me anything about this amazing photo of two scientists working in the coolest control room of all time? I'm just a tweet away at @ShortFormErnie, or you can ping Motherboard at letters@motherboard.tv.

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Update 1/20/17: Asking the public for info about an obscure photo seems to be pulling out a few of the mystery-seekers. Thanks to everyone who's reached out. We're a little closer to solving the mystery than we were yesterday, but we're still keeping an eye out. Just to get everyone on the same page, here's what we know about the photo at this juncture:

It's probably not a computer, nor a calculator: A number of readers pointed out that the device appears to be more mechanical in nature, due to the lack of input. Most likely, the machine is a monitoring control unit, possibly for a power plant. (The headline has been updated to reflect this.) Mar Hicks, a technology historian with Illinois Tech, says that the these photos show up often in her research, and "they're almost always control rooms for things like power plants." Chernobyl's control room, as it turns out, looks quite a bit like the photo. (What are the markings up top? Simply, they represent process control—a way of highlighting what's happening in the plant.)

About Italy's textile industry: Some readers aren't convinced that the photo shows a textile plant at all despite the photo's source, but if we go on the premise that it was a textile plant, it's worth noting that the Italian textile industry had grown quite advanced in the post World War II era. Nicola White's 2000 book Reconstructing Italian Fashion: America and the Development of the Italian Fashion Industry highlights this development.

The "Zimmer" connection: One element that a number of readers pointed out was the small, barely perceptible Zimmer sign in the lower right corner of the photo. There is a currently operating multinational firm that has this name, with interests in both textiles and machinery. The firm's base is located in Austria—a distance likely close enough to suggest that they perhaps built some devices in Italy. I'm looking to reach out to them to see if they can offer some more details. Though, as reader Guillaume Kuster points out, the common nature of the Zimmer name in German-speaking countries could prove a bit of a dead end.

We're still looking, but follow along on my Twitter thread.