The Pedoscope, which sounds far more threatening now than it did in my youth, was also known as the Fluroscope. Housed in what appeared to be a Davenport desk, it brought space-age technology to the shoe shop.
The otherwise dull acquisition of school shoes became a strange and eerie experience for a young child. You stood in a contraption that could have come from Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory or Flash Gordon’s space ship, staring mesmerised through an eyepiece at wiggling metatarsals, when a skeletal hand suddenly appeared and grabbed your foot. A voice declared that ‘there’s plenty of room in the toe for growth’, after which the spectral hand retreated from the green glowing screen.
Although they may have been more of a gimmick than a contribution to better-fitting footwear, Pedoscopes continued in use for many years, sitting like great radiograms in the centre of shoe shops.
Both the ‘Adrian Fluroscope’ manufactured in Milwaukee in the US and the Pedoscope made in St Albans first appeared in the late 1920s. They were of a similar design, employing X-rays to view a person’s feet inside their shoes.
The customer trying out a new pair of shoes stepped on to the Pedoscope, placing their feet in a slot at the top of the plinth. Knobs and dials would be adjusted before the X-ray tube, located in the base of the Pedoscope, was switched on. There were usually three viewing apertures at the top of the cabinet, allowing customer, sales assistant and a parent to assess the suitability of the shoes in green luminous glow.
The procedure was repeated as often as seemed necessary. Each time a burst of radiation would be applied not only to the customer’s feet, but in varying degrees to everyone in the vicinity. Nowadays even a modest tooth X-ray requires dentist and assistants to dive behind a lead screen.
Shoe-shop employees performing many fittings a day were exposed to X-rays both by proximity to the machine and by putting their hands into the chamber to feel the foot in the shoe. The dangers of frequent contact with radiation ranged from dermatitis to an increased risk of cancer. Surveys in the 1940s indicated that over half the machines tested exceeded the recommended exposure rates, and combined with unrestricted use raised concerns about safety. It was thought that a maximum of twelve exposures a year were safe for a child, and that some form of regulation would be required.
In 1950 the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists issued standards for the operation of fluoroscopic shoe-fitting devices. By then it was estimated there were 10,000 machines in the US and 3,000 in the UK.
The demise of the Fluroscope began in the US, with individual states ruling that the machines could be operated only by licensed physicians or physiotherapists, which proved both impractical and unaffordable. In 1957, Pennsylvania became the first state to ban the use of shoe-fitting Fluroscopes. There was no such legislation in Britain, but the Fluroscope and Pedoscope gradually disappeared from the high streets of America and Britain during the late 1950s and early 1960s. For today’s children, only Superman has X-ray vision.