This post was written by Amy Charlton, a work placement student with the Research & Public History department from Sussex University’s MA Art History and Museum Curating.
Where do you think you might find this object? Known in Britain by the trade name ‘Pedoscope’, this was a familiar object in shoe-shops of the mid 20th century. The machine produced an X-ray of the customer’s foot inside a shoe to ensure shoes fitted accurately, which both increased the wear-time of the shoe and with that, the reputation of the shoe shop.
The customer placed their foot over an X-ray tube contained within the wooden base of the Pedoscope. From this, a beam of X-rays passed through the foot and cast an image onto a fluorescent screen above. The screen could be observed via three viewing points – one for the shoe-fitter, one for the customer, and one for a third party (usually the guardian of a child being fitted). The accommodation for three viewing points may seem a little extravagant, but it may be an indication of the popularity of the Pedoscope and the interest the public had in the machine.
The entertainment value was unprecedented but there was a darker side to the Pedoscope. Think about how careful we are with X-rays today to avoid the health risks associated with radiation. As early as 1950, the British Medical Journal wrote of the risk of direct radiation for customers, and the dangers facing shoe-fitters from scattered radiation. Trade literature issued by The Pedoscope Company called these concerns ‘fantasy’.
One of the primary concerns was that no record was kept of the number of exposures a person received, so there was no way of regulating this. Consequently, in 1958 the Home Office necessitated that the following notice be mounted on each machine near the viewing point: ‘Repeated exposure to X-rays may be harmful. It is unwise for customers to have more than twelve shoe-fitting exposures a year.’ In the same year, the Medical Research Council published this statement: ‘We hope that the use of X-rays in shoe-fitting will be abandoned except when prescribed for orthopaedic reasons.’
Despite the awareness of the health risks of the Pedoscope, it was not until the 1970s that the Pedoscope faded from view. Perhaps this is telling of the unparalleled entertainment value that this innovative (yet precarious) use of modern science and technology had upon the public at the time.