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Ottó A. Michelsen

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Published in Morgunblaðið 10.júní 2020

By Björn Jón Bragason

Translated by Bryndís Víglundsdóttir

black and white portrait of Ottó A. Michelsen
Ottó A. Michelsen

When modern society was rapidly forming in Iceland during the 20th century, calling for skills of various kinds great many needs emerged that had to be met. Among the new items on the scene were office machines that were a great asset with the accounting and communication. In the beginning the machines were just type writers and simple calculators, later accounting machines emerged and at last came the computer that developed with such speed that there is hardly the aspect of human life in our times that hasn´t been computerized. In the story that has been written about the beginning and development of the information technology in Iceland the name of the pioneer Ottó A. Michelsen is prominent and at the very top. Today there are 100 years from his birth. Ottó was born in Sauðárkrókur in the year 1920, the son of Jörgen Frank Michelsen and his wife Guðrún Pálsdóttir. Jörgen was a Dane, a watchmaker and a goldsmith.

Going Abroad in Uncertain Times

Ottó´s parents encouraged their children to learn a trade. Getting an apprenticeship contract in the midst of a world depression was quite difficult as many were competing for each apprenticeship space. Towards the fall of 1938 Ottó was losing all hope that he would have the chance to take up learning when he got the offer to go to Germany to study repair of typewriters and calculators that were being imported by the wholesaler Egill Guttormsson. Ottó sailed to Zella-Mehlis in Thüringen and studied during the winter with Mercedes Büro-Maschinen, which at that time was one of the largest producers of office machines in the world. Ottó returned home in the spring of 1939, worked at herring fishing off the north coast but went south to Reykjavík at the end of the herring season. Soon he realized that he must improve and add to his knowledge of more types of typewriters and calculators so he decided to go abroad again, altogether contrary to the advice of his family and friends who argued that considering the military development in Europe this was not advisable.

Stuck During the War

Ottó sailed to Copenhagen and soon he found work in his trade. As the war progressed the demand for all and any workers increased by day and he was hired by his former employer in Germany. Ottó was responsible for repairing typewriters all over Germany so he had to travel constantly for the next years. He applied for a position in Denmark but his request was refused. In 1944 he decided to flee to Denmark and went underground in Copenhagen for some time. The Danes didn´t accept Ottó´s German diplomas so he had to make good working as a 'post apprentice' for two years for very low wages but managed to improve his wages by buying old and used office machines, repairing and selling them.

The beginning of the Age of the Computer.

When Ottó returned home in 1946 he began working at his trade and established the firm Office Machines Ltd. Two years later he became an agent for all the IBM products. At that time all data processing was performed on punched cards and it may be said that the computer age rode into this country the fall of 1964 when The Office Machines of the State, the city of Reykjavík and the University of Reykjavík got machines from IBM. The University computer was a gigantic investment, equal to five or six apartments, an investment way beyond the financial capabilities of the University. Ottó used his influence and promoted the idea that IBM in the US would lower the price of the computer by 60% and the deed would be considered a 'university discount'. The idea was accepted and the Implementation Bank under the leadership of Benjamín H.J. Eiríksson provided the remainder of the amount. These machines were given several names but in 1965 dr. Sigurður Nordal professor suggested the word tölva, that was accepted and is still used for a computer.

Ottó standing by an IBM computer, 1981
Ottó standing by an IBM computer, 1981

The IBM branch established.

Each year the services with the office machines became more complicated and time consuming. The demand for new and costly IBM machines that Office Machines rented was steadily increasing. Finally the Icelandic authorities granted permission for establishing an IBM branch in Iceland that would rent out machinery and programs and render needed services. This was the same method IBM employed everywhere so this was in keeping with the practices of the international company. IBM in Iceland became a reality and Ottó was appointed the CEO. Ottó was the owner of Office Machines Ltd. and was the agent for the IBM products