Celebrating the Smoot

Accord­ing to Google’s built-in cal­cu­la­tor func­tions, I’m 1.04477612 smoots tall. And what, you may be ask­ing, is a smoot?

From Wikipedia:

The smoot is a non­stan­dard unit of length cre­at­ed as part of a Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (MIT) fra­ter­ni­ty prank. It is named after Oliv­er R. Smoot (class of 1962), an MIT fra­ter­ni­ty pledge to Lamb­da Chi Alpha, who in Octo­ber 1958 was used by his fra­ter­ni­ty broth­ers to mea­sure the length of the Har­vard Bridge between Boston and Cam­bridge, Massachusetts.

One smoot is equal to his height (five feet and sev­en inch­es ~1.70 m), and the bridge’s length was mea­sured to be 364.4 smoots (620.1 m) plus or minus one ear, with the “plus or minus” intend­ed to express uncer­tain­ty of mea­sure­ment. Over the years the “or minus” por­tion has gone astray in many cita­tions, includ­ing the com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque at the site itself. Smoot repeat­ed­ly lay down on the bridge, let his com­pan­ions mark his new posi­tion in chalk or paint, and then got up again. Even­tu­al­ly, he tired from all this exer­cise and was there­after car­ried by the fra­ter­ni­ty broth­ers to each new posi­tion. Every­one walk­ing across the bridge today sees paint­ed mark­ings indi­cat­ing how many smoots there are from where the side­walk begins on the Boston riv­er bank. The marks are repaint­ed each year by the incom­ing asso­ciate mem­ber class (sim­i­lar to pledge class) of Lamb­da Chi Alpha

This past week­end, smoots and Oliv­er Smoot were back in the news:

Father of the ‘Smoot’ returns to MIT

By Associated Press | Saturday, October 4, 2008 | http://www.bostonherald.com | Local Coverage

CAMBRIDGE — The father of a unique mea­sure­ment known as the “Smoot” has returned to MIT.

Oliv­er Smoot was the short­est pledge in the school’s Lamb­da Chi Alpha fra­ter­ni­ty 50 years ago when they decid­ed to lay him on the Mass­a­chu­setts Avenue Bridge.
They found he mea­sured 5‑foot‑7 inch­es, then marked the bridge every five feet and sev­en inch­es, deter­min­ing it was 364.4 “Smoots” long. Today, Google’s cal­cu­la­tor func­tion will change any mea­sure­ment into Smoots.

The orig­i­nal Smoot — who lat­er became chair­man of the Amer­i­can Nation­al Stan­dards Insti­tute — returned to the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy on Sat­ur­day for “Smoot Cel­e­bra­tion Day.” Smoot spoke and was pre­sent­ed with a plaque, which will be installed on the bridge.

MIT pres­i­dent Susan Hock­field said the plaque will bright­en the day for wind­blown pedestrians.

I love the fact that Smoot became chair­man of the Amer­i­can Nation­al Stan­dards Insti­tute. Who bet­ter to pre­side over such an orga­ni­za­tion than some­one who is a Stan­dard of Mea­sure himself!

On the half a dozen or so times that I walked on the Mass Ave. bridge, I sur­veyed the Smoot marks like the one in the pic­ture above, and was intrigued by the effect of a half a cen­tu­ry of repaint­ing (the repaint­ing was­n’t always in the same colour!) I heard sto­ries about the Boston police describ­ing the loca­tion of dis­abled vehi­cles on the bridge being ‘near the 200-smoot mark’ or  ‘at the 250th smoot’. In fact, giv­en how use­ful the smoot marks were, I won­der if it might be a good idea to also mark Van­cou­ver’s bridges of sig­nif­i­cant length (such as the Granville Bridge, here in Vancouver)  in smoots. I’ll bet it would help with traf­fic reports. We could even append some smoot infor­ma­tion at the bot­tom (as a foot­note) of those flags already on the bridges. While the Bur­rard Street Bridge is prob­a­bly not long enough to war­rant ‘smoot cal­i­bra­tion’, the Cam­bie and Lions’ Gate bridges could cer­tain­ly ben­e­fit from this mea­sure­ment. Even if we got pres­sure from the folks in Boston that only the Mass Ave. bridge could have smoot marks (because they were a bona-fide tourist attrac­tion), I’d counter that there is no such thing as a copy­right or oth­er rights on a unit of measurement.

Per­haps some day in the dis­tant future, peo­ple will won­der why all bridges are mea­sured in smoots, and prob­a­bly assume that it had some­thing to do with road con­struc­tion or the ele­va­tion of bridges above water. After all, mea­sure­ments often have strange his­to­ries. The orig­i­nal def­i­n­i­tion of the inch was the width of a man’s thumb. In the 14th cen­tu­ry, King Edward II of Eng­land ruled that 1 inch was equal to 3 grains of bar­ley placed length­wise, end to end.

One Reply to “Celebrating the Smoot”

  1. Thanks for the post. I love this. When I worked at MIT and would walk dur­ing lunch, I often smiled at the smoot mark­ers. When I scrolled down (catch­ing up on my blog read­ing), I, again, smiled at the thought. How fun!

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