The last two installments of Bridge-It Jones’ Diary told the stories of women’s contributions to infrastructure history, highlighting two bridges built by women (who long went unacknowledged for it)— the Brooklyn Bridge and the Waterloo Bridge.
I’ll be real with you, today’s edition is not about women’s history, or women who built bridges, or women at all. It’s about men. Specifically, one man: Oliver Smoot.
In 1958, Smoot was a freshman at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. He had just pledged the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, which occupied a fraternity house just across the Charles River in Boston. To get from the frat house to MIT’s campus, Lambda Chi Alpha members had to traverse the Harvard Bridge, sometimes several times a day. Though it’s a relatively short walk – about half a mile – this became tiresome to the fraternity brothers (no one’s ever said MIT students are too athletically inclined).
The students thought that knowing the length of the bridge, in a comprehensible way, might ease the burden of walking across it, especially if they were running late to class or a meeting.
So the pledgemaster that year, Tom O’Connor, came up with a system to measure it.
Specifically, using one pledge: Oliver Smoot, the shortest new member of the fraternity at 5’7.
Smoot laid down on the bridge while his fraternity brothers marked the length of his body, one “smoot” at a time. He laid down again, and again, and again, until he got too tired and then his brothers began to pick him up and put him down until the bridge was completely measured.
Photos from 1958, via MIT Museum.
They got to the end after 364.4 smoots plus one ear. That, today, is the standard measurement of Harvard Bridge — and each year, a new class of Lambda Chi Alpha pledges marks off the bridge using smoots for the sake of tradition.
Actually, you can measure most things in Smoots if you’re so inclined; Google Maps and Google Earth offers it as a measurement option.
As for Oliver Smoot, he comes back to the campus for various celebrations every now and then, and a plaque commemorates his first contribution to the field of measurement.
For Smoot, this wasn’t just some fraternity prank. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for measurement. Believe it or not, Oliver Smoot went on to become the chairman of the board of the American National Standards Institute, which establishes and regulates measurements of all sorts. He also became president of the International Organization for Standardization. You can’t make this up!