A PERFECT FIT THAT'S TIMELESS|
History of The Brannock Device
"Is this you, Gus?"
It was. It always was. Sunday afternoon, at 3 p.m., sharp, the phone would ring at the home of Gus Charles, It would be Charlie Brannock calling, and every single time he would ask Gus that question.
The calls started years ago, a means of discussing the business of Brannock's unique invention. At the end, they were a connection, an affirmation, between two ailing friends.
"I think he found that a little reassuring" says Charles, 70, an accountant fighting his way back from a stroke. He has been missing the call for the past few Sundays, the first to pass since Brannock died November 22, at the age of 89.
But Charles carries on the work. He still gets over to the tiny East Fayette Street factory, the one equipped with black dial phones and green metal cabinets, beneath a rack of neatly tagged devices. Brannock Devices, named for their creator. Nothing invented in this city has so perfectly filled a void.
"It showed incredible ingenuity and no one has ever been able to beat it says Tibor Kalman, a Manhattan graphic and industrial designer. "I doubt if anyone ever will, even if we ever get to the stars, or find out everything there is to find out about black holes."
Last summer, Kalman was asked to come up with ideas for a New York City design show built around functional elegance, He was struggling when he accompanied his children to the shoe store and a clerk pulled out the device. There it was, exact and symmetrical, unchanged since the days when Kalman used it as a boy.
"Perfect," he says.
Charlie Brannock invented it. He wanted to find the best way to measure the foot, and he played around with the idea for a couple of years. He built the prototype from an Erector set. Sixty-six years later, 970,000 of the devices have been built in Syracuse and shipped across the world. They remain essentially unchanged.
The device comes in green, purple, red or the traditional black. There are models for men, women, athletic shoes and ski boots, and for children, always with two knobs for adjusting the fit cups at both ends for the curve of the heel, a sliding bar with strict orders to adjust "firmly for thin foot, lightly for wide foot."
If you have been in a shoe store, you know what they are, even if you never knew what they are called.
"People ask about the place where I work," says Josephine Shaw, who runs a corner of the small brick factory set aside for shipping. "When I tell them we make the metal thing that measures your foot, they say, 'Oh, yeah."'
Syracuse is the place, the only place, where those things have been made, Charles Brannock was born here, invented the device here, died here last month. Not too many people knew about him. He hated publicity, shunned reporters. Barely anything was ever written about him. But his invention became an appendage for people everywhere who kneel on carpeted floors and then measure feet, that is, literally, everywhere.
"I've been in the shoe business my whole working life, and you think of the Brannock Device as the way you make your living," says Sid Burger, shoe buyer for McB's Shoes, a women's shoe store on Market Street in San Francisco.
When Burger remembers shoes, he remembers the device. It is what they use at McB's. There are a couple of competitors, but McBs ignores them. The Brannock Device seems foolproof. And it never wears out. 'They last forever," Burger says, "unless you run one over with a truck."
That is a strange kind of problem, says Gus Charles, a slender, dapper man in a wide silk tie. That is why the Brannock factory stays small. Charles Brannock believed in all the things that are supposedly dead in industry. He loved small business. He loved working downtown. And he built his product to last.
Most shoe stores don't get rid of their Brannock Devices for 10 or 15 years, until the numbers finally wear away from so much use. While Charles is guarded about productionhe says the company makes "tens of thousands" each yearthat total could be more. It would require switching to plastic, which would guarantee that each device would quickly crumble into ruin.
Yet, Charlie Brannock could not do that no more than you can make a square box roll down a steep hill. His character prevented it, like a law of physics.
"He was very, very proud of this device,' Charles says. "It meant more to him than just the money, He had no family. This was it. When he got up in the morning, this is what he looked forward to." Kalman says it is to Brannock's honor that the device was central to his whole career. 'A perfect life Kalman says, "a perfect singularity of purpose."
A need, a device
Brannock never married, although friends say he had opportunities. And he had plenty of close friends, even though he dodged the wave of pop adulation that almost certainly could have swept him up. Brannock was the kind of guy built for People magazine, an American original, but the media never got that chance.
"A gentleman," says Joe Riordan, manager at the East Fayette Street plant, where 14 employees polish the incoming precast metal, attach the handles and then prepare the devices for shipping. Riordan said Brannock treated all his employees, in suit coats or work suits with the same quiet courtesy.
Brannock was born into the shoe business His father, Otis Brannock, joined with Ernest Parks in 1906 to found the old downtown Park-Brannock Shoe Co. on South Salina Street. In its heyday, the store had individual floors for specific types of shoes, and offered merry-go-rounds to entertain the children.
As a young man-no one seems exactly sure when-Charles Brannock became obsessed with inventing a device that would properly measure feet, which was a science of pinching the leather and squeezing the toe.
Before the Brannock device, recalls Donnie Carbone, 64, manager of the Karaz Shoe Store at Shoppingtown Mall, the available option was a primitive block of measured wood. "It's like night and day," Carbone says. "There's no other device on the market right now that's even used. The Brannock device is 95 percent, 96 percent right about the size of the shoe.
Bursts of inspiration
During his undergraduate days at Syracuse University, while rooming with future lacrosse coach Roy Simmons Sr., Brannock would climb out of bed in the middle of the night to scribble figures and drawings.
It was the fledgling stage of the device. Simmons, 92, remembers it vividly, because he often complained that Brannock's work disrupted his sleep. Brannock would tell him to roll over. Like Edison, he feared that any idea left alone at night would vanish by morning.
"I don't know what inspired him," says Simmons who remained close to Brannock. Whatever it was, he was afraid that he'd lose it. Now I've seen that device all over the world, in Paris, in Japan, and I always think of him."
In 1926 and 1927, Brannock patented the device and created a company to build it. Still, Carbone says, the initial value of the invention was in what it did for the downtown shoe store. No one else in Syracuse, Carbone says, could fit a shoe so perfectly. If someone had an unusual size, and the device picked it up, Brannock made sure he had a match in stock.
One business dies
Faced with a booming demand, Brannock in the 1940's moved the device company out of the shoe store and into the small East Fayette Street machine shop. Each day, Charles says, Brannock would walk between the store and the factory, overseeing both the sale of shoes and order for the device.
During World War II, the Army hired him to ensure that boots and shoes fit enlisted men. Sometimes, but rarely in public, Brannock would speak to acquaintances with pride and disbelief of the way his device had swept over the globe.
The dual aspects of the business went out of Brannock's life in 1981, when his shoe store was engulfed by the expansion of the Hotel Syracuse. Brannock didn't have much choice except selling the building, Charles says So the two men took a tour of upstate cities-Binghamton, Rochester and Buffalo-to do an informal study on the health of downtown shopping.
They learned, quickly, that what happened in Syracuse was true all over. Downtown's were dying. People wanted convenience, easy parking more than old-fashioned quality. Brannock, already 78, decided to let his store stay closed. "I think he was shocked by that," Charles says.
The next generation
At about the same time, Brannock finally let go of downhill skiing, another lifetime passion. But he remained a big fan of Syracuse University sports-thanks to his friendship with Simmons he donated $1,000 a year to a lacrosse scholarship fund. And he still had the factory, which kept turning out the devices used all over the world, each one bearing the name of Syracuse, NY.
Throughout the 1980s, Brannock showed up in the office every working day to take care of business-until six months ago, when his health for the first time, began to wear down. Now he is gone, too quietly, it seems, for a man who came up with such a striking invention.
"It's such a useful thing," Charles says. That is the only reason Charles even agreed to talk about Brannock. He feels his boss deserves his due Charles is executor of the estate, and he says it has been "pretty much" left up to him to decide on the fate of the company. The employees will continue to run it, as in the past," he says, and they will discuss as a group any of the purchase offers that Charles says have already started.
But one thing is certain: just to get in the door, any would-be buyer must guarantee the device will not be cheapened or changed. That point is not negotiable. As far as Brannock friends are concerned, the obituaries were wrong in claiming he has no survivors. He has thousands of them, and they last until the numbers wear off.
Inventor: Charles Brannock, son of Syracuse shoe store operator Otis Brannock. Charles died this year, still active in the company, at 89, 30 years after the death of his father-also at 89.
A first; shoe people say the Brannock device, invented in 1926 and 1927, provided the first accurate scientific measurement of the foot-but it looks pretty good on a wall, too.
Running total: The company has sold 970,000 and could pass 1 million in 1990s.
To buy one: Company officials are mum about the bulk cost, But an everyday customer can buy one for $56 at the factory or by calling 475-9862.