Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

March 30th, 2008:

Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscopes

Just got back from Chicago and there's way too much to do (and I have a six-hour dental appointment scheduled for Thursday!) but I did want to report on something I saw on our trip that I haven't seen for a very long time: A shoe-fitter X-ray machine. People my age or older may remember going to a shoe store in the 1950s or earlier, and having your parents and the shoe store man look at your feet inside a new pair of shoes to make sure they fit correctly. I know I did this, and I vaguely remember the humming machine, but I suspect I was just too short to get to look into the machine myself. (I doubt I would forget a real-time X-ray image of my own bones. Urrrrp…)

Carol and I stopped at Square Deal Shoes in downtown Des Plaines last Saturday. We both bought shoes to leave at our condo so we don't have to pack them on future trips. While browsing the stock I also looked at their Simplex X-Ray Shoe Fitter. The machine was disabled (they've been illegal since 1970) but it was otherwise in very good shape, housed in a marvelous Raymond Loewy-ish Art Deco wood cabinet.

An excellent short history of this peculiar phenomenon is here. The machine shown in the article is, I believe, a more deluxe version of the one I saw at Square Deal Shoes; both were made by X-Ray Shoe Fitter, Inc., of Milwaukee. The name plate (below) indicates that the power supply drew 7 amps and put out 50,000 volts at 5 milliamps. That kind of power will generate considerable radiation out of an X-ray tube, and the associated hazards eventually put an end to continuous-beam fluoroscopy by untrained operators, in shoe stores and elsewhere. The hazards appeared not so much to the occasional shoe store customer as to the sales reps who ran the machines and sometimes to professional shoe models who tested shoes for manufacturers using machines like this; one woman's foot was damaged so badly in testing shoes that it had to be amputated.

Square Deal Shoes has been in business since the 1920s, and in earlier times they also made custom shoes. One the current owner showed me was the shoe of Robert Wadlow, who at 8 feet 11 inches was the world's tallest man in the 1930s, and possibly the tallest man in recorded history. The shoe was technically size 37, and although I placed the shoe in front of the X-Ray machine in the photo above, it just makes the machine look small; the damned thing was as long as my forearm.

As I mentioned in my entry for March 25, 2008, the world is full of odd things like this. Get out, look around, pay attention, and you'll see them.