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Ottico Meccanica Italiana

OMI, or Ottico Meccanica Italiana, was an Italian manufacturer of photogammetric equipment, founded in Rome (Italy) in 1926 by Umberto Nistri (1895-1962). After Umberto's death in 1962, the company was led for nearly 20 years by his son Raffaello (1920-1981). After Raffaello's death in 1981, OMI became part of the Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta and the photography business was split into S.A.R.A. Nistri [6] (air photography) and Aerofotogrammetrica Nistri [1].

Cipher machines
At the start of WWII (1939-1940), OMI secretly produced an electro­mechanical cipher machine that was used by the Italian Army (Regio Ersetico), the Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) and the Navy (Regia Marina). The machine was called Cryptograph Alpha and was based on the same principle as the German Enigma. It had 5 moving cipher wheels of which the leftmost one was the reflector. Unlike the Enigma however, it had a built-in printer that produced its output directly onto a paper strip. The OMI Cryptograph featured irregular wheel stepping, similar to the Zahlwerk Enigma.

In the early 1950s, OMI developed the successor to the wartime machine, which was also known as Criptograph (note the 'i') [4]. It was larger than its predecessor and contained an improved 7-wheel drum, consisting of 5 cipher wheels with 2 wiring cores each, a settable cipher wheel and a settable reflector. Like the earlier Cryptograph, this machine featured irregular wheel stepping.

The Cryptograph evolved into the Cryptograph-CR, probably in the late 1950s. Its case was more rounded and was painted in green hammerite. Furthermore, it was given an improved power supply unit (PSU), a slightly different printing mechanism and a different keyboard. As a result the motor had to be rotated by 90° (left to right rather than front to back). The wheels were identical.

Sometime during its operational life, the Cryptograph-CR received a mid-life upgrade in which the mechanical keyboard parts were replaced by 26 electric relais. Furthermore, the spacebar was removed and the letter 'W' was added, resulting in a completely new keyboard. After the upgrade, the machines were re-painted grey hammerite. This was typically the case for the Italian Navy machines. In order to avoid confusion, we will call this machine Cryptograph-CR Mark II.

 OMI cipher machines
  1. 'Cryptograph' is sometimes written as 'Criptograph', e.g. in [4].

OMI was founded by Umberto Nistry, who was born on 16 September 1895 in Rome, as the eldest son of Raphael and Letizia Nistri, two cousins with the same last name, originating from Quinto, near Sesto Fiorentino (Italy). Just before Umberto was born, the family had moved to Rome, where they settled down in today's Prati district. Here, Umberto was born and made his first steps [3].
Umberto's father, Rafael, came from a family of farmers, but had enlisted in the Italian Army, in the hope to provide a better life for his children. Stimulated by his parents, Umberto was the first of the Nistri family to become a regular student.

After five more children were born, the family moved to Forte Trionfale, near Monte Mario, were the father - now an assistent at the military genius - had been assigned an accomodation at the military base. It is here where Umberto developed his passion for aerial photography.

Despite his desire to become an engineer, the need to financially support his family, forced him to accept work in the topographical field, and in 1931 he graduated as (land) surveyor. When Italy entered WWI, in 1915, Umberto got interested in military aviation, but had to promise his mother not to get involved in flying. With his mother seriously ill, Umberto left work and joined the artillery. He was sent to the front in Karst (Italy).
Umbert Nistro. Source: [2].

In 1916, he briefly returned home when his mother's condition had deteriorated. After her death, Umerto no longer feld bound to the promise he had made about not flying, and in 1917 enlisted for a training course to become an aerial observer. After his training he joined the 35th squadron in Santa Giustina (on the Piave), where he specialised in territory surveillance and photography of enemy positions. He earned two silver medals for bravery during the war.

Umberto's father Raphael died shortly after WWI had ended in 1918 and with the help of his brother Amedeo, he took up the task of looking after the younger children. In order to be able to support his family, he decided to stay with the Air Force. A year later, he married Lola, an elementry school teacher whom he had befriended in Rome before the war. From this marriage, two sons were born: Paolo Emilio and Raphael.
Using his wartime experience in flying, photo­graphing and mapping, Umberto Nistri was able to develop a tool for obtaining topographical maps from stereoscopic aerial photographs.

The first patent for the rudimentary version, the fotocartografo, was obtained in 1919, and by 1922, the final version of his photogrammetric renderer was ready. Other patents followed in 1925 (Model II) and 1929 (Model III). At the same time, in order to finance his ongoing studies in the field of photogrammetrics, Nistry designed an built the first instruments for air navigation.
One of the first cartographic machines from SARA-Nistri [6]

In 1921, with help of his brother Amedeo, he founded the first company for the commercial production of topographic maps by means of aerial photography and photogrammetrics, which became known as the Società Anonima Rilevamenti Aerofotogrammetrici (anonymous society for aerophotogrammetric survey), also known as SARA-Nistri, followed in 1930 by the foundation of Ottico Meccanica Italiana (Italian Opto-Mechanics), also known as OMI or OMI-Nistri.
The untimely death of his brother Amedeo in 1936 and the outbreak of WWII in 1939, led to an unexpected interruption of the activities of SARA-Nistri and put a hold on the production at OMI-Nistri. Luckily, Nistri was given secret orders for the development and production of a cipher machine for the Italian Armed Forces.

The OMI Alpha, which is shown in the image on the right, was similar to the German Zählwerk Enigma cipher machine, but was much faster in operation as it was driven by a motor and printed its output directly onto a paper strip.
OMI Alpha

After the war, the company slowly recovered and gradually managed to sell its products and cartographic machines worldwide. In 1961, with the advent of the computer, the company was the first to offer instruments for digital photo­grammetrics, based on the patents of Uki Helava. In 1954 another cipher machine, the Criptograph, was developed, followed by the Cryptograph-CR.

Umberto Nistri died on 24 April 1962 and was followed by his son Rafaello, who led the company for another 20 years, until it was acquired by the Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta in 1981, following the death of Rafaello himself. During his long and impressive career, Umberto Nistri won numerous awards, received honorary degrees from universities around the world, and was an honorary member of the most prestigious societies and academic institutions. In his home town Rome, a street nearby the historic headquarters of OMI has been named after him.

Umberto Nistri's signature [5]

  1. Wikipedia, Ottico Meccanica Italiana
    Retrieved July 2015.

  2. Attilio Selvini, A mezzo secolo dalla scomparsa di Imberto Nistri
    Focus, GEOmedia, No 1-2012 (Itlaian). Retrieved July 2015.

  3. Giuseppo Ceraudo, Nistri, Umberto
    Treccani (Website). Biografico. Retrieved July 2015.

  4. Herbert Avram, Ottico Meccanica Italiana Criptograph-Wiring
    NSA-064. Reference ID: A56952. Informal No. 16. 17 June 1954.
    Declassified by NSA on 20 May 2014.

  5. Informativo, Arquivo Histórico de São Paulo, SARA Brasil
    Website (Brasilian). Retrieved December 2015.

  6. SARA Nistri, Azienda
    Company website (Italian). Retrieved December 2015.

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