How many of you still have your old Rolodex? The Center for Land Use Interpretation and Blast Books found an unusual cache of them from the Los Alamos National Lab, ground zero of A-Bomb research in World War II. I asked publisher Laura Lindgren to tell us about how and why this odd bit of ephemera became Los Alamos Rolodex.
How did you come to publish this as a book?
We’ve published two earlier books by The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Up River and Around the Bay. CLUI inquired if we might be interested in publishing a book of the cards in the seven large Rolodexes that they had acquired from the Los Alamos Sales Company, aka the Black Hole of Los Alamos. A quick explanation: The Black Hole was started in the 1950s by Ed Grothus, a machinist and technician at Los Alamos National Lab. The cards represent businesses that supplied goods and services to the nuclear industry. We selected 150 cards, ranging from 1967 to 1978, from the thousands in the seven Rolodexes.
Do you see it as design history? Or social history? Or what?
I think it can be viewed as both social and design history. As social history, it is revealing of the sweeping connections of the nuclear industry to other businesses both highly technical and very banal. Everybody wanted to do business with the nuclear industry—from cryogenic corporations to cleaning supply companies, like Scott Paper Company. Each of the cards was stamped or inscribed on the back, presumably the date the business person came calling or the card was received. The shift in logo and typographic designs from the mid-’60s to the late ’70s tracks along with technology changes—often in the mid-’60s logos are sparked with atomic power; in the ’70s cool digital data technology images and typography provide the excitement, as in the mainframe computer tapes in the 1970 UDAC card logo and the 1978 Interactive Computers card.
Were you conscious of the fact that these Rolodex entries would today all be digitized?
It was only after I published the book that I noted there are people who find a Rolodex a kind of quaint and puzzling organizational device. Others have said with a mix of pride and amusement, “I still have one!” I suppose highly organized people today scan the business cards they collect? Me, I stick them into my Rolodex.
The book has an ironic quality. Was that an intention?
The curious ironic quality in the book is really a reflection of the cards and the time. We made a selection of cards that please and inform and delight in lots of ways, but at the bottom of it, there is so often an inherent irony in looking back at a time—and industry—that considered itself the pinnacle of progressive. It seems ironic today that in this progressive era and industry it was natural for men (and it’s almost exclusively men’s business cards in the Rolodexes) to have their nicknames—”Bud,” “Corkey”—printed on their cards. A slogan on a Zeltex, Inc., card in the book reads: “Where Things Analog Happen!” The irony seems to have created itself with the passage of time.
Los Alamos, of course, is the home of the nuclear age. You can say, the beginning of the end game. These cards are for such banal services—did you have the sense that the force of the atom was being maintained by white collar guys with buzz cuts?
Definitely. As author Matt Coolidge wrote in the book’s introduction, “It takes a lot of technology to make technology, but ultimately the bomb was made by people calling other people on the phone.”
I have to ask: Who do you think the book’s audience will be?
I think this book will appeal to a variety of people curious about American’s nuclear industry and technology history, people interested in the pockets of curious hidden American history (of course none of us were ever meant to see these business cards) and people interested in graphic design history, for whom the graphics in the 150 cards in the book are really intriguing to see. There is a remarkable imagination, energy, and unmistakable spirit of optimism in the logos for businesses involved with ferrofluidics and hyperthermal testing, and pulverizing machinery, and so much more shown in the book.