Enrico Fermi's letter about computers

In the middle of the 20th century, the University of Pisa received funds from the authorities in Pisa, Lucca and Livorno which were intended to raise the scientific profile of the university. An initial plan by the physicists at Pisa to build an electro-synchrotron fell through when the decision was taken to build this much closer to Rome. They were then in the pleasantly embarrassing situation of having lots of money with no plan how to spend it. They came up with the idea of approaching Enrico Fermi, perhaps the most famous Italian scientist of his day, and seeking his advice. Knowing that Fermi would be lecturing at the summer school in the Villa Monastero in Varenna, on Lake Como, two physicist from the University of Pisa who would also attend the summer school were asked to approach him.
[Let me add that I [EFR] attended a summer school in the Villa Monastero in 1970 - it is a truly magical location.]
The two physicists were Marcello Conversi and Giorgio Salvini who, immediately, suggested to them that Italian research would benefit most if Pisa built an electronic computer. To give his advice the maximum chance of success, he wrote to Enrico Avanzi, Rector of the University of Pisa, in the autumn of 1954 giving the reasons for his suggestion. We reproduce the text of Fermi's letter below. The original is reproduced in G De Marco, G Mainetto, S Pisani and P Savino, The early computers of Italy, Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE 21 (4) (1999), 28-36. The letter was written in Pera di Fassa, near Bolzano, on 11 August 1954.

Text of Enrico Fermi's letter:

To: Professor Enrico Avanzi
Rector of the University of Pisa

Dear Professor

On the occasion of my stay at the Varenna School, Professors Conversi and Salvini mentioned that the University of Pisa might have at its disposal a large amount of money to use for the development and progress of Italian research.

On being questioned about the various possibilities to use such funds. I thought that the idea of building an electronic computer in Pisa was by far the best.

An electronic computer would constitute a research instruments from which all science and research activities would profit, in such a manner that is currently inestimable.

I know that the Institute for Applications of Computation, headed by Professor Picone, is in the process of buying a machine of the same kind. However, I do not think that this event would reduce the need for such a machine for a centre of study like the University of Pisa. Experience shows that the possibility of executing complex calculations with great speed and accuracy quickly creates such an enormous demand for these services which would soon be beyond the capacity of just one machine. Furthermore, there are the advantages for the students and researchers who will be trained in the use of these new tools for computation.

Yours sincerely

Enrico Fermi


1. We should note that this letter was written only a few months before Fermi's death. He was already struggling with health problems while at the summer school in the Villa Monastero and at a summer school near Chamonix in France which he went to after writing the letter. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer after he returned to the United States.

2. Enrico Avanzi, the rector of the University of Pisa, set up a team headed by Alessandro Faedo to follow Fermi's advice and build a computer. The Centro Studi Calcolatrici Elettroniche was set up and Faedo's team, which included physicists and electrical engineers, designed and built the Calcolatrice Elettronica Pisana. Completed in 1961 and inaugurated on 13 November of that year, this was the first computer designed and built in Italy.

Last Updated May 2013