Without invitation, an odd memory careened into my consciousness today. There was a store in the small Arizona town of my childhood called Johnson's something or other -- dry goods, clothing, shoes -- I don't remember. The store sold cowboy hats and shirts and boots and all sorts of other 'sundries'.
We didn't go into that store very often. I think the merchandise was probably too expensive or there had been some disagreement between grandparents years before -- doubtless small town nonsense that makes for good gossip.
Anyway, this store had a most amazing machine. You stood at the machine, put your feet into slots of some sort and through a viewer could see the bones of your feet. The reasoning behind this machine was that people about to purchase a pair of shoes lacked the ability to -- by virtue of are they too tight or too loose type of reasoning -- decide whether or not the shoes fit.
So Johnson's whatever had an X-ray machine.
Apparently these machines were quite the thing in the decades of the forties and the fifties. They were called fluoroscopes and provided real time moving images of skeletal structures and any other structure exposed to their X-rays.
The first shoe-fitting fluoroscope was built in Milwaukee in 1924 by a guy named Clarence Karrer. He was eventually asked by the Radiological Society of North America to stop selling the things because they lowered the dignity of the radiology profession. He kept right on selling.
Great ideas, however, spread like wildfire.
In England at about the same time Karrer came up with his fluoroscope, the Pedoscope was granted a patent. Despite understandably hard feelings between the Brits and the Milwaukee folk, the X-ray Shoe Fitter Corporation of Milwaukee Wisconsin, and the Pedoscope Company of St. Albans in England, became the two largest manufacturers of shoe fitting fluoroscopes in the world. In the early 1950’s, estimates placed the number of operating units in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada at about fifteen thousand.
Despite warnings from scientists who had begun to suspect that these devices were not the best things since sliced bread (see witsend archives for that article), shoe stores just kept on using them until employees started showing up with radiation burns sometimes sufficiently severe to require amputation. It's possible that years later those same employees also showed up with altered genetic structures. Who knows.
At any rate, those radiation burns were enough to convince people that the foot X-ray machines were unsafe. The determination of whether or not the shoes fit was put back into the hands of the people with the feet, assuming they had any left.
Meanwhile, back in the Johnson's whatever store of my childhood. Every time we went into the place, I just had to run over to that machine and stick my feet in it. Come on. I could see the bones of my toes right through my shoes -- also right through my skin and muscles and soft tissues. When I wiggled my toes I could see my bones move. Really. Could any child resist such an opportunity?
All day today -- since that memory arrived -- I've found every way possible to express profound thanks for whatever reason kept us from going into that store very often and for the fact that I couldn't stick my head into that machine.