Measuring the world by Smoot

The fathom has a much younger and slightly shorter cousin. It goes by the name of smoot. If a fathom is the width of a man’s outstretched arms, then a smoot is the height of a man – and not a man in the sense of men generally, or an average man, but a man, in the sense of Oliver R Smoot, the five-foot-seven-inch Chairman of the American National Standards Institute and President of the International Organization for Standardization.

In nineteen fifty-eight Mr Smoot was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was also a ‘pledge,’ or novice member, of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. As part of their initiation, a group of pledges were given the task of measuring out the length of the Harvard Bridge, and they were told to use one of their number as a ‘ruler.’ Smoot was chosen for the job because he was the shortest – which would make the task longer and more arduous – and because he had the silliest name, which was already considered sound a bit like an obscure unit of some sort, anyway.

The measurement was done at the dead of night by getting Smoot to lie down, marking his height with chalk and paint, then getting him to stand up, move one length further along and get down again, and again and again. For a while, Smoot did it under his own steam but after a hundred or so times he became tired, and his companions ended up simply dragging him from one space to the next.

In this way, it was determined that the bridge was 364.4 smoots long "plus epsilon," although this was later recorded as 364.4 smoots "plus an ear."

That would have been the end of it, but for the fact that the strange new markings on the bridge caught people’s fancy, and it became the custom every year for each new intake of Lambda Chi Alpha pledges to repaint the markings.

This went on for some time, but in 1987 the Massachusetts Department of Public Works decided that the bridge needed renovations and resurfacing, and this meant removing all the smoot markings.  This caused something of a commotion locally, and the press contacted Oliver Smoot, who by then was forty-eight years old and executive vice president of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufactures Association in Washington D. C., to ask whether he would be prepared to be re-used for new markings, should the need arise. He was less than sure that he would.

But meanwhile, The Massachusetts Metropolitan District Commission, the government body in charge of the bridge, went on record in support of smoots. "We recognize the smoots' role in local history,” they said, “That's not to mean that the agency encourages graffiti painting.  But smoots aren't just any kind of graffiti.  They're smoots!  If commemorative plaques and markers are not installed by the state once the bridge work is done, then we'll see that it's done." The Boston police authority also weighed in, saying that its officers had come to rely on smoot-marks for identifying the location of accidents on the bridge. Faced with the strength of opinion, the Department of Public Works obliged; and the contractors, Continental Construction Company of Cambridge also agreed to make the new concrete paving slabs five feet seven inches long to coincide with the smoots, instead of in the usual six-foot increments. On completion of the work, Lambda Chi Alpha were given permission to resume their annual smoot-painting ceremony, which continues to this day.

For a long time, smoots were what you might call a local measurement, much-loved where they were but pretty much unknown to anyone outside. However, because of the kind of people that MIT graduates are, and because of their involvement in things like the development of the internet, smoots these days turn up in all sorts of odd places. You can even, for example, select smoots as your chosen unit of measurement in the Google Earth software.

In recent years there have been one or two attempts to ‘modernise’ the smoot by bringing into line with the height of Smoot’s son Steve (MIT ’89) or his daughter Sherry (MIT ’99) but they have all been rebuffed by purists.