Obituary: Arnold Neustadter

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The Independent Online
Arnold Neustadter was the inventor of the Rolodex and devoted most of his life to the quest for order in the office and home. His invention, a cylindrical rotating card file, was designed in 1950 as a tool to speed the work of the secretary and later became the Establishment's wheel of power and a lasting totem to the art of social and business mobility.

A collector of antique paperweights who married his secretary, Neustadter was not the greatest user of his machine; he didn't care to use the telephone and always came to the point. Fittingly, he kept a clean desk.

He was "the most organised man I ever knew," his son-in-law David Revasch said. "His life was so organised it was like his own invention. Whenever anyone put something on his desk that didn't belong there, he'd move it. He could have patented his own life."

Neustadter was born in Brooklyn in 1911 and attended New York University before joining his father's box- manufacturing business in 1931. He soon struck out on his own and established his company Zephyr American Corporation with a series of moderately successful inventions.

The first was the Autodex, a spring-mounted personal phone directory that popped up at a given letter of the alphabet. Then came the Swivodex, a spill-proof inkwell, and the Clipodex, which could be clipped to the knee to help secretaries and stenographers to take dictation.

In 1950 he launched the Rolodex. At first it received a lukewarm reception. "I knew I had a good idea, but people were sceptical at first," he said in 1988, "and we had trouble getting stationery stores to buy it."

Neustadter toured sales shows and office supplies stores with a promotional gambit to entice orders for the $7.95 machine - he would offer $50 to anyone who could locate a card faster than one of his company reps.

The machine quickly became a staple in offices throughout the country, capturing 90 per cent of the market and transcended its original clerical purpose to become a symbol of success for businessmen, politicians and socialites who came to be described in terms of their bulging Rolodexes.

"Hollywood put it in films and television, then everyone believed the bigger the Rolodex, the bigger the man," said Revasch.

Neustadter's invention has survived social and technological change. Designed for the hierarchical Fifties, it proved an essential tool in the Eighties era of networking and in this decade the computer has dented but not destroyed its usefulness. In recent years the number of different models has declined and some have become computerised. The largest in the range, the 6,000-card, three-wheel Torque-A-Matic, has been discontinued altogether.

He ran Zephyr American until 1970, when he sold the company at a vast profit. He retained the European rights to Rolodex and spent seven years in London managing the business before retiring to Palm Beach, Florida, where his interests turned to philanthropy and art. He amassed a collection of modern work that included Chagall, Picasso and Henry Moore and he supported Israeli and Jewish causes, making contributions to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the Israel Museum.

Edward Helmore

Arnold Neustadter, businessman and inventor: born Brooklyn 1911; married (one son, two daughters); died New York 17 April 1996.