Why The Shoe Fits
WHEN I TELL PEOPLE WE’RE THE BRANNOCK Device Company, they just look at me,” Tim Follett says. “When I say we make the metal thing that measures your foot in the shoe store, they grin and say, ‘Oh, yeah!’” Follett is vice president of the Liverpool, New York, firm that makes that thing. “We may be the only company in the world whose sole product is a foot-measuring device,” he observes.
Liverpool is a suburb of Syracuse, where Charles F. Brannock invented his device and got it patented in 1928. He was 25. His father, Otis Brannock, ran a Syracuse shoe store where the clerks used a wooden stick to size feet. It wasn’t good enough. As Brannock put it, “The shoe salesman, like a doctor, has a distinct responsibility to his customers, because a mistake in the fitting of a shoe, particularly a child’s shoe, can definitely endanger the health.”
He worked in his father’s store during college breaks. “That’s when he got the idea,” Follett says. “What he had in mind was a device that would measure the foot three ways: width, length from heel to toe, and length from heel to the ball of the foot. The hard part was coming up with a way to take all three measurements at the same time.”
Brannock would wake up at night in the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house at Syracuse University to scribble notes and make sketches of his invention. His roommate, Roy Simmons, complained, but Brannock protested that he’d forget if he waited until morning. According to Albert F. Baier, another fraternity brother, Brannock told his roommate, “Simmie, I’m working on an invention, and if it works, I’ll cut you in on the dividends.” (Brannock and Simmons saw each other more than six decades later, and Simmons asked about his dividend checks. Brannock replied, “Simmie, they’re in the mail.” Simmons did not actually need the money, since he had had a long and very success- fui career as the lacrosse coach at Syracuse. Among his players was Jim Brown, who went on to become a Hall of Famer in lacrosse as well as his other sport, football.)
He built his prototype from his childhood Erector Set, and he started production in 1929 after founding the Brannock Device Company two years earlier. A lifelong bachelor, he ran the firm until shortly before he died in 1992, at the age of 89.
He improved his device but never strayed far from the original design. Ten different versions are now available, including a “Junior” model for measuring infant and toddler feet. During World War II he produced a version for military footgear. It sized both feet simultaneously, speeding the provisioning of thousands of servicemen and -women. “Shoes fitted by this device strengthen the foot power of the nation’s fighting forces,” the Syracuse Post-Standard proclaimed.
He was always amazed by the success of his invention and was very proud of it, says Gus Charles, a retired Brannock executive who was a long-time friend of the inventor. “When he was older, we’d drive around to shopping centers mostly in Syracuse and visit shoe stores so he could see his devices being used.”
Today computers aid production, but the device is nearly the same as it has always been. It is still entirely metal, with just a few basic parts: the base plate, width bar, and archlength pointer, all made of cast aluminum, plus length and width scales, screen-printed on thin aluminum sheets.
Castings arrive at the plant from Edlund Die Casting, in Syracuse, and are trimmed, sanded, polished, and washed by machine and by hand. Machines then mill slots in the base plate for the width bar and arch-length pointer, which are attached by hand. The length and width scales are put into place with a pneumatic press.
Thousands of vintage Brannocks are still on the job. “They’re almost impossible to break, unless maybe you ran over one with a truck,” Follett says. “It takes a long time before the numbers wear off, too.”
The virtually ubiquitous but virtually uncelebrated invention does get some appreciation outside the shoe world. The late graphic and industrial designer Tibor Kaiman noticed it when he went to a shoe store with his children while he was seeking examples of superior functional elegance for a New York City design show. He recognized the device’s elegance immediately.
“It showed incredible ingenuity, and no one has ever been able to beat it,” Kalman later said. “I doubt if anyone ever will, even if we get to the stars or find out everything there is to find out about black holes.”