phenom



      Celebrated inventors like Edison and Bell deserve their lofty places in history, but justice demands that a similarly rarefied spot be reserved for one Charles F. Brannock, a man whose invention has had a tremendous impact on your life—you just don't realize it.
Charlie Brannock's life story is a testament to an admirable obsession with the simple, the linear, the straightforward, the unfettered. He was born and raised in Syracuse, went to college in Syracuse, worked his entire life in Syracuse, and died in Syracuse. He was a lifelong bachelor, married only to his invention, which was called, aptly enough, the Brannock Device, and manufactured, of course, by the Brannock Device Company. He followed his father into the shoe business and was still working there when he died.

But the true measure of Brannock's unswerving vision, and of his genius, remains the Brannock Device itself—that oddly beautiful gadget they use to measure your shoe size. You've put your foot in one, and so has everyone else. Literally everyone. Think about that. Brannock invented it in 1926, and it's barely been altered in the intervening 70 years. That's because there's been no need to alter it—the Brannock Device, an astoundingly perfect product, is among the finest examples of 20th-century industrial design, ideally and brilliantly suited for its intended task. This singularity of functional purpose defines not only the device, but also its inventor.

Brannock was born in 1903. When he was three years old, his father, Otic C. Brannock, hooked up with Ernest Park to form the Park-Brannock Shoe Co., a retail outlet in downtown Syracuse. The younger Brannock, who worked in his father's store, soon saw the need for an instrument that could measure the human foot. At the time, a glorified yardstick—a narrow wooden stick with calibration markings—was the state of the art. Realizing that this method measured foot length but not arch length or width—both crucial to a good fit—Brannock wanted something better.

He worked on a prototype while in college. His roommate used to complain about Brannock's propensity for jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to scribble down notes and drawings. But Brannock couldn't be worried about trivialities like lost sleep or late-night manners—he was too busy chasing Perfection.

In 1926 the chase ended—the Brannock Device was born. At first, Brannock's invention was used primarily in his father's store—it provided a tremendous competitive advantage over the other shops in town. Eventually, however, demand spread. During the 1940s, Brannock moved his Brannock Device Company out of the shoe store and into a small Syracuse machine shop (where it would remain until a few years after his death; it was then relocated to a neighboring town). Although the Brannock Device was ultimately adopted by shoe stores not only around the country but also the world, Brannock was largely unchanged by his invention's success, and continued to alternate his attentions between his manufacturing plant and the shoe store (which he took over after his father's death in 1962), until he closed the latter in 1981.

Charlie Brannock died in a hospital bed on November 22, 1992, at the age of 89. Though he was ill for about six months prior to his death, he maintained a daily presence at the office and was, by all accounts, friendly and happy to the end. Like Orson Welles, Brannock created his masterpiece while still in his twenties, but unlike Welles, he was untroubled by the obsession over what to do for an encore. Brannock understood that his device, a beautiful, perfect invention that has literally touched hundreds of millions of people, was more than enough for one lifetime.   </end>

PAUL LUKAS is the editor of Beer Frame: The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption and a columnist for New York Magazine. His article Basement Tapes appeared in the premiere issue of STIM.


Editor's Note:
The weirdest part about doing this story was trying to find a Brannock device to take a picture of. We went to three or more shoe stores before we found one. Apparently, in New York, you are just supposed to know your shoe size. But Georgia would not be stopped!

Up Talk!