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Obituaries

Bob Olodort, the inventor of the label printer and portable keyboard, dies

Bob Olodort
Bob Olodort with his invention, the Stowaway portable keyboard.
(Photo courtesy of Mary Ann Braubach )

Bob Olodort kept a tape recorder in his car, where many of his ideas struck.

A self-described “technologist artist,” Olodort as a young man was a curious and independent inventor who spent his free time working on engineering projects he knew little about.

But despite skepticism and criticism, he stuck with them long enough to see some succeed, including his invention of what many thought was the most efficient folding keyboard of the late 1990s and the label printer, which created a new subdivision of computer products.

Olodort died July 3 in Duarte after a five-year battle with multiple myeloma, his wife, Mary Ann Braubach, said. He was 73.

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Olodort was born May 23, 1946, in Los Angeles to Adele, a homemaker, and Abe, a chief uniform buyer for the Navy. He spent his childhood immersed in curiosity, taking gadgets apart to learn how things worked, often without knowing how to put them back together.

After graduating from Hamilton High School, he studied psychology and photography at UC Berkeley, where he participated in antiwar protests and the Free Speech Movement.

After graduating in 1968, Olodort studied film at as a graduate student at UCLA.

There, between attending classes and making documentaries and ethnographic films, Olodort absorbed himself in engineering projects. It didn’t matter that he had no training in engineering; his creative drive and interest in science sufficed.

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Throughout film school, he made special effects equipment, projectors, time-lapse cameras and optical printers — equipment to enhance his filmmaking. These undertakings were, he once told Wired magazine, “always much too ambitious, much too complicated.”

But the more time he spent with these projects, the simpler his approaches became.

In his late 20s, while still in film school, Olodort realized he could sustain himself financially inventing things.

He licensed his first invention in 1977, an affordable film-editing machine, which saw some success. From there, a surplus of projects followed, but not without stumbling.

“It’s always been a struggle,” he told Wired in 2000, “because I always take on projects I know almost nothing about. Five years on this, five years on that and almost no money.”

But he always resisted the urge to quit.

Bob Olodort with his milling machine
Olodort with his WWII-era Bridgeport milling machine, which he used along with the rest of his machinery to hand prototype all his inventions.
(Barbara Katz)

He went on to develop the first computer label printer, which he designed in his studio — an airplane hangar at the Santa Monica Airport. He licensed the product to the Japanese holding company Seiko, and it became a $35-million business.

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In 1998 he created the Stowaway portable keyboard, considered his magnum opus. The 8-ounce, full-size, foldable keyboard that users could plug into hand-held devices was a major success when it was released the following year.

“There were other portable keyboards on the market, but [Olodort] realized that touch typists were sensitive to keyboards.… It had to be a full-size keyboard with no compromise in layout,” said John Tang, the keyboard’s senior engineer.

Handwriting recognition and shorthand technologies, Olodort realized, weren’t efficient. But touch typing was, and he pursued creative ways to materialize such a keyboard. He was met with much skepticism at first. Critics thought the idea was too complicated, as keyboards are made up of hundreds of tiny parts.

Olodort was not discouraged.

Forbes reported in 2000 that J&R, a now-defunct New York electronics retailer, sold out 200 units of the keyboard in its first week at $100 each. Its immediate success drew in $8 million more in financing and caught the attention of venture capitalists. In its third year, about 3 million had been sold with sales reaching $40 million.

In 2000, PC Magazine named the keyboard the most innovative product in its design category, calling it “engineering wizardry” and “a marvel of design” that made “hand-held computing much more appealing and productive for mobile users.”

He was awarded the 2001 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for it, which was later included in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent design collection in New York.

Olodort had observed years earlier that products in the tech world were shrinking in size.

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“I knew computers were going to get ultrasmall, and I thought it was a matter of time before new input technologies would be needed,” he told Entrepreneur magazine in 2003. “I tried other solutions, voice recognition for one, [but] I realized there was no substitute for a full-size keyboard,” which offered convenience, privacy and familiarity.

“The full-size part was critical. After all, no matter how small the devices get, people’s fingers aren’t getting smaller,” he said. “The challenge was to make a full-size keyboard that could collapse into a small space for portability.”

Rather than license the keyboard, as he’d done with prior projects, he used the product as an opportunity to start a company with engineer Phil Baker. They founded Think Outside Inc., an original equipment manufacturer. Olodort served as its chief executive and chairman until it was purchased in 2006, and he went on to found or co-found several more companies.

Olodort later developed a partnership with Samsung, inventing and designing phones including the UpStage, considered his most commercially successful.

“What was key to his work was not that he just wanted to create something, but he looked for a need,” his wife said.

But he also thought aesthetically. He cared about the product’s presentation and look.

“He saw himself as an inventor and an artist,” said his son, David. “He was in a constant, artistic process of exploring new ideas that materialized in consumer products more often than not.… His artistic medium was consumer electronics.”

Even in his last years, Olodort was inventing, working on creating an analog watch.

He is survived by his wife, son and older sister, Carol.


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