On this day in 1910, pre-digital office technology and information management pioneer Arnold Neustadter, who popularized the Rolodex, was born in Brooklyn. (He also invented the Swivodex and the Clipodex, but you don’t hear too much about those.) As a young man, Neustadter briefly joined his father’s box manufacturing business, before striking out on his own as an inventor and starting his own manufacturing company, American Zephyr. Neustadter had two passions. One was eliminating time-wasting, inefficient fumbling around for information, which people did a lot of in the early 20th Century. The other passion was giving his creations names with a “dex” (apparently, short for index, though some of his inventions had nothing do to with indexing) at the end.
Neustadter’s first big brainstorm was a spring-mounted personal phone directory, the Autodex, that retrieved all the phone numbers whose owners’ names began with whatever letter of the alphabet you pressed. He and his employees also created the Swivodex, an unspillable inkwell, the Punchodex, a paper hole-punching device, and the Clipodex, basically a fancy name for a clipboard that attached to a stenographer’s knee when he or she was summoned to the boss’s office to take a letter.
In 1940s and 1950s, Neustadter and his chief designer, a Danish-born, self-taught engineer named Hildaur Neilson, set out to make the retrieval of contact information by business people as efficient as possible. (The Autodex, after all, would only pull up all the people whose names began with a certain letter, not a specific person.) Instead of storing the data in a book, they got the inspiration of having it rotate around an axle. Their first simple version was a circular card holder called theWheeldex, but Neilson eventually added a second circular rail, plastic handles for easy turning, and a clutch. The result, which American Zephyr marketed as a Rolodex, quickly became the standard tool for secretaries and executives in the “Mad Men” era. As the New York Times noted in Neustadter’s 1996 obituary, the Rolodex “quickly made its way into offices around the country, ultimately reaching the status of a cultural icon.
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