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LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS is a perhaps surprising source of Americana. For instance, what’s a “smoot”? The London Review of Books online, October 4, 2021, presented “Paper Cuts: Smoot Day,” subtitled “Plus or Minus One Ear, from a piece in the LRB archive by Steven Shapin.”

“The geeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Steven Shapin wrote, “are fond of merry japes, locally known as ‘hacks.’ One of the more memorable happened one night in October 1958 when an MIT fraternity had the idea of initiating new members by making them measure a bridge over the Charles River connecting the Cambridge campus with Boston.”

Enter Oliver R. Smoot, Reclining. Shapin described: “Crossing the bridge was often a wet, windy and unpleasant business and it was thought that students returning at night from downtown would like to know, by visible marks and with some precision, how far they still had to go. The older fraternity brothers decided to use one of the new pledges as a rule, and selected Oliver R. Smoot, the shortest of the lot at 5ft 7in.”

A reclining Oliver R. Smoot, standardized on the Harvard Bridge, October 1958. Image from London Review of Books, October 4, 2021.

Shapin wrote, “The other pledges laid Smoot out at one end of the bridge, marked his extent with chalk and paint, then picked him up and laid him down again, spelling out the full measurement every ten lengths, and inscribing the mid-point of the bridge with the words ‘halfway to Hell’.”

The span was 364.4 smoots long, “plus or minus one ear.” MIT students are precise, after all, and recognized inherent measurement uncertainty.

Today, a plaque commemorates the smoot’s 50th. This and the following image by Beyond my Ken at Wikipedia.

Smoot Heritage. Wikipedia notes, “The smoot /ˈsmuːt/ is a nonstandard, humorous unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity prank. It is named after Oliver R. Smoot, a fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha, who in October 1958 lay down repeatedly on the Harvard Bridge (between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts) so that his fraternity brothers could use his height to measure the length of the bridge.” 

The links in this Wikipedia description are rich with amplification. Among them are references to seven other humorous units of length, nine of time (including the “Jiffy”), and others of Beauty, Coolness (the “MegaFonzie”), and Quackery (the “Canard”). 

Oliver R. Smoot. Wikipedia has a listing for the man himself. He’s retired, living in San Diego now, having served as the Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) from 2001 to 2002 and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) from 2003 to 2004. He’s also a representative of the MIT Education Council.

Why the Smoot in LRB? Shapin described establishment of the smoot in introducing his review of Robert Crease’s World in the Balance: A Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement. 

World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, by Robert P. Crease, Norton, 2011.

Shapin’s LRB review of Crease’s book runs 4375 words, and is well worth reading. The review is replete with measurement tidbits likely to appear here at SimanaitisSays in time. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

One comment on “ON THE SMOOT

  1. Tom Tyson
    October 7, 2021

    I find the leadership of role of Oliver R. Smoot to both ANSI and ISO somewhat fitting. Thanks for the chuckle (more than a snicker yet less than a guffaw) this morning. – TT

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