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September 9, 2006 1:25 PM   Subscribe

"364.4 Smoots plus one ear" is the official length of the MIT bridge between Cambridge and Boston. In 1962, pledges to an MIT fraternity were ordered to measure the bridge using the shortest among them, Oliver R. Smoot, as a measuring stick. Since then, members of the fraternity have repainted the marks on the bridge twice a year. Oliver Smoot's daughter Sherry, eventually went to MIT but was not used to remeasure the bridge since she was shorter than her father. Her brother Stephen, also an MIT student, was too tall. Oliver, of course, was just right. He eventually went from being a unit of measure to controlling units of measure: in 2001 he was chosen to be chairman of ANSI and in 2003 he was selected to be president of ISO.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste (53 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's awesome. Thanks for the great post.
posted by anthill at 1:37 PM on September 9, 2006


That's a great punchline.
posted by freebird at 1:37 PM on September 9, 2006


What a great, quirky little post! Most amusing, thanks, SCDB.
posted by madamjujujive at 1:38 PM on September 9, 2006


An MIT friend told me the story of the bridge a couple years ago, but I didn't know the guy became chairman of ANSI! That's just too good to be true.
posted by danb at 1:42 PM on September 9, 2006


Ah, but can he get you booked on a sex cruise?
posted by selfnoise at 1:48 PM on September 9, 2006


Google Earth recognizes the "smoot" as a unit of measure and will offer distances in that unit. (In case you're curious, a Smoot is officially 67 inches.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:49 PM on September 9, 2006


What an excellent FPP!
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 1:57 PM on September 9, 2006


Funny...I'm familiar with Smoots, seems everyone in Cambridge knows about it (or asks about it when they see the MIT bridge markings) but I had no idea Smoot went on to be involved in standards! Couldn't have been written beter.
posted by vacapinta at 1:57 PM on September 9, 2006


A really good post - thanks!
posted by nj_subgenius at 1:58 PM on September 9, 2006


eriko ~ -> units
510 units, 54 prefixes
You have: smoot
unknown unit 'smoot'
Boo! Must fix that. (typity typity) There.
eriko ~ -> units
511 units, 54 prefixes
You have: smoot
You want: furlongs
* 0.008459596
/ 118.20896
Now, to submit the patch.
posted by eriko at 2:01 PM on September 9, 2006


Oh, yeah. Just for the record. 55 exasmoot (and an ear) is almost one parsec, and the speed of light is 213085.53 smoots per nanofortnight. Now you know.
posted by eriko at 2:10 PM on September 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


Yesterday I swam 1175 smoots!

Working this unit into everyday conversation is going to take a bit of work.
posted by clevershark at 2:12 PM on September 9, 2006


Fortunately Google has a built-in meters to smoots converter.
posted by clevershark at 2:13 PM on September 9, 2006


I can't believe this has never been on MeFi before. I could swear I learned about it here, but the search for smoot turns up nada, other than the Google calculator can do unit conversions into smoots.
posted by caddis at 2:15 PM on September 9, 2006


The bridge is usually referred to as the /Harvard/ bridge, or the Mass. Ave. bridge, not the MIT bridge. Anecdotally, this is because MIT students structurally analyzed it and gladly ceded any naming rights, although the chronology doesn't really work out (the bridge was built while the Institvte was still on its pre-1916 Boston campus near Copley Square).

In the 1920s, it was so badly deteriorating that it was referred to as the xylophone bridge; a popular student anecdote involved a suicide-attempting student who changed his mind while falling from the bridge and was saved because a passerby threw in a plank loosened the bridge's disintegration, which he used to float ashore.
posted by nonane at 2:32 PM on September 9, 2006


As it turns out, I am 1 Smoot in height.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 2:35 PM on September 9, 2006


Capital post — thanks.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 2:41 PM on September 9, 2006


Father, son, and daughter all MIT alums? Smart family.

Also, great title and excellent post.
posted by quin at 2:49 PM on September 9, 2006


Ah, the Smoot Bridge.

I remember when my brother (an MIT grad) first showed it to me many moons ago.

Fun group of people, those Institute geeks.
posted by Relay at 2:52 PM on September 9, 2006


Wow, awesome post!
posted by frecklefaerie at 3:32 PM on September 9, 2006


I remember walking accross that bridge in early 2002 and wondering what the hell the markings were all about.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:40 PM on September 9, 2006


[awesome].
posted by perissodactyl at 3:50 PM on September 9, 2006


I am also one smoot tall.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:49 PM on September 9, 2006


Outstanding. Who says Web surfing is a waste of time? Great info, thanks.
posted by etaoin at 4:50 PM on September 9, 2006


Extraordinarily good post. Thank you!

(I'm 1.1 smoots tall!)
posted by darkstar at 5:09 PM on September 9, 2006


I think we're all smitten with smoots.
posted by jonmc at 5:09 PM on September 9, 2006


Oliver is about 65 (most sources seem to give the bridge-pledge-rush-haze date as 1958). Unless he uses gravity boots, I'm guessing the paradigm has undergone some contraction — and the Old Smoot ain't what he used to be.
posted by rob511 at 5:10 PM on September 9, 2006


Outstanding!
posted by peacay at 5:38 PM on September 9, 2006


I am also a smoot! I feel the need to respond in this format. I hope someone asks for my height soon. Hm, now I just need an unusual measure of weight/mass...
posted by luftmensch at 5:39 PM on September 9, 2006


Marvelous.
posted by evariste at 6:27 PM on September 9, 2006


Luftmensch, I think you want the Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures.
posted by kenko at 6:44 PM on September 9, 2006


Brilliant post, thanks.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:50 PM on September 9, 2006


Also - paging Ira Glass...
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:51 PM on September 9, 2006


i just like to say SMOOT

SMOOT SMOOT SMOOT!
posted by quonsar at 7:14 PM on September 9, 2006


Smootfilter
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:25 PM on September 9, 2006


you can tell the quality of a bridge by the quantity of it's smoot.
posted by carsonb at 7:31 PM on September 9, 2006


- '
posted by carsonb at 7:32 PM on September 9, 2006


Distance from Earth to Sun is 8.79056834 × 1010 smoots
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:00 PM on September 9, 2006


Smoot retired his standards position last year.
posted by adamg at 8:08 PM on September 9, 2006


so now you know
posted by riotgrrl69 at 8:17 PM on September 9, 2006


What a cool story and post!

I'm about one smoot high as well!
posted by gomichild at 8:20 PM on September 9, 2006


He must have been intensely interested in measuring things as a young man, and hence infamy enough to warrant such a stunt. He was a measurements geek!
posted by five fresh fish at 8:38 PM on September 9, 2006


In the 80's the bridge was limited to one lane each way because of it was structurally unsound.
posted by rdr at 8:53 PM on September 9, 2006


Not only is this an excellent post, but it just reminded me about a guy I know named Tom Smoot. That name always gave me a a laugh and now there's another story about it.
posted by dhammond at 8:53 PM on September 9, 2006


In the 80's the bridge was limited to one lane each way because of it was structurally unsound.
rdr

I think you mean the Harvard bridge.
posted by Relay at 9:00 PM on September 9, 2006


I think you mean the Harvard bridge.

Same bridge.
posted by Mapes at 9:09 PM on September 9, 2006


Speaking of which, apparently the Millenium Falcon was able to do the Kessel run in just under 2.17577507 × 1017 smoots. That is all.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:22 PM on September 9, 2006


This is a tariffic thread, but I have to wonder how Hawley feels about all this...
posted by stenseng at 2:38 AM on September 10, 2006 [2 favorites]


And those students who originally did this, they were just so fantastically lucky that the shortest among them was actually named SMOOT! How fantastic is that? If he'd been a Higginbotham, or a Steinberg or a Williams, I dunno, just wouldn't have had that ring.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:44 AM on September 10, 2006


I wonder if he was really chosen because he was the shortest guy around or because he had the best name. Smoot. I love it, fantastic story, thanks.
posted by beno at 4:07 AM on September 10, 2006


Ha! I'm two inches short of a smoot.
posted by deborah at 10:23 AM on September 10, 2006


So, is an ear roughly equivalent to an inch then? In that case I am one smoot and 2 ears tall.
posted by clevershark at 12:25 PM on September 10, 2006


In the Spenser novel Early Autumn, Boston-based mystery writer Robert B Parker sets an action sequence on the bridge. Early in the scene, Spenser describes the Smoot markings, and later, uses them to describe the action:
"There was another gunshot from five smoots away. I had my gun out and was running toward the Olds when I heard the MG take off with its tires squealing."
posted by Lord Kinbote at 7:35 AM on September 11, 2006


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