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