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September 24, 2002

A public radio commentary

Although we live in a disposable society, there are a few things designed so well that they are never out of style. The premier example may well be the Rolodex.

The inventor of the Rolodex, Arnold Neustadter, was fascinated with what he called, in his quirky way, "dexes." Buy "dex" he meant a method to store and organize information. He used "dex" as a suffix, which he appended to just about every word in our language.

For example, his first invention, in the 1930s, was the "autodex" a flat phone directory that popped up at the desired letter. Then he moved to devices that helped people create information - for example, the "Swivodex" a spill-proof ink well; and then to the "Clipodex" a writing pad that attached to a secretary's knees. In spite of these failures, he kept thinking of ways to organize information. His big breakthrough came when he modified another of his inventions, the "Wheeldex" to come up with the the classic Rolodex.

Neustadter was trained as a journalist, so he worked with an engineer to design and perfect his ultimate dex. They created a masterpiece, partly because Neustadter was very interested in the arts. He collected glass paperweights and studied modern art, and this influence is clear in his classic Rolodex. He wanted it to fit the hand perfectly, be easy to move, and yet be attractive.

The result was simple and elegant: His classic Rolodex has a shiny, tubular steel frame, which is strong and robust, yet streamlined. Its in perfect balance as the card wheel cantilevers over the base. Since Neustadter had a great sense of human kinetics, the knob fits a hand perfectly, and the balanced wheel rotates easily throughout 360 degrees. Neustadter started marketing his new Rolodex in the late 1950s. Its sleek no nonsense design fit well with the efficient image of a 1950s office. Rapidly the Rolodex became a fixture in offices, especially after Jack Lemmon used it in the popular movie The Apartment. By the 1970, it was a true cultural icon, even an emblem of power, growing into an essential tool when the "networking" fad of the 1980s hit.

I've said it was a perennial design, but what about this decade -- surely the computer has forced the Rolodex to the trash heap? No. Some ten million units are still sold every year, and in fact the computer has been modified to accommodate the Rolodex. You can buy programs that will print out cards, which you can store in your old-fashioned revolving Rolodex.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises