Rolodex Inventor Dead at 85; Created the Business World’s Wheel of Fortune
NEW YORK (AP) _ Back in 1950, Arnold Neustadter merely wanted to clean up the office desk. But when he died this week at 85, his invention had evolved from the secretary’s humble assistant to the powerbroker’s mighty weapon.
For Neustadter had created the Rolodex, the cylindrical rotating alphabetical card file that became the American establishment’s wheel of fortune and the very symbol of access.
``Hollywood put it in films and television, and then everyone believed it,″ Neustadter’s son-in-law, David Revasch, said Friday: ``The bigger the Rolodex, the bigger the man.″
What kind of man was Arnold Neustadter, who died Wednesday in New York?
``The most organized man I ever knew,″ Revasch said. ``His life was so organized it was like his own invention. He could have patented his own life.″
Predictably, he praised the condition of the founder’s desktop.
``Whenever anyone put something on it that didn’t belong there, he’d move it,″ Revasch said. ``Nothing ever stayed on his desk very long.″
Neustadter joined his father’s box-making business in 1931 but soon left to start his own company. He had several unsuccessful inventions, including the Swivodex, a spill-proof inkwell, and the Clipodex, a device secretaries could clip to their knees to take dictation.
Then came Rolodex, which went on sale in 1950.
``I knew I had a good idea, but people were skeptical at first,″ he recalled in 1988. A Rolodex cost $7.95, ``and we had trouble getting stationery stores to buy it.″
With its snap-on cards, Rolodex was neat, easy and fast. To show how fast, Neustadter would visit sales shows and offer $50 on the spot to anyone who could locate a given Rolodex card faster than company reps.
America flipped for Rolodex, which gained 90 percent of the U.S. market. Although it was marketed for secretaries and other clerical personnel, it became a symbol of business and political power.
A stolen Rolodex was the subject of a 1986 episode of the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd series ``Moonlighting.″ After the Democrats’ debacle in the 1994 midterm elections, President Clinton tried to get some political inspiration by literally ``going through the Rolodex,″ an aide said.
Designed for the hierarchical ’50s corporation, the Rolodex proved just as useful for ’80s networking, when who you knew became as important as what you made, and commands were less important than contacts.
Even the computer has not killed the Secaucus, N.J.-based circular filer. ``People want paper as backup,″ reported Laurie Hoffman, a company spokeswoman. And many secretaries don’t like to interrupt software programs to get phone numbers.
The computer has, however, marked Rolodex’s high tide. Today, the number of different Rolodexes has dropped from several hundred to several dozen, including a computerized version. Models such as the three-wheel Torque-A-Matic, with 6,000 cards, have been dropped.
Neustadter sold his company in 1970 at vast profit and devoted much of the rest of his life to family (he’d married one of his secretaries), religion, philanthropy and collecting. Among his collections: antique paperweights.
Despite the Rolodex’s implications for dealmaking, powerbrokering and networking, its inventor was not its greatest user. He didn’t particularly like to use the phone and would always get right to the point.
``He would not have been a good fund-raiser,″ Revasch said. ``He was not a schmoozer.″