Wednesday 28 May 2008

Taking things to a New (and some old) Length

While reading "Zero to Lazy Eight" by Alex and Nicholas Humez and Joseph Maguire, I came across the unusual measure of length called a smoot. I looked it up on Wikipedia and found this:

"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
Oliver Smoot ’62 is used to measure the bridge in 1958.

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.
(Image from *

Markings typically appear every 10 smoots, but additional marks appear at other numbers in between. For example, the 70-smoot mark is omitted in favor of a mark for 69 (boys will be boys!) The 182.2-smoot mark is accompanied by the words "Halfway to Hell" and an arrow pointing towards MIT. Each class also paints a special mark for their graduating year.
The markings have become well-accepted by the public, to the point that during the bridge renovations that occurred in the 1980s, the Cambridge Police department requested that the markings be maintained, since they had become useful for identifying the location of accidents on the bridge.The renovations went one better, by scoring the concrete surface of the sidewalk on the bridge at 5 feet and 7 inch intervals, instead of the conventional six feet.

Google Calculator also incorporates smoots, which it reckons at exactly 67 inches (1.7018 meters). Google also uses the smoot as an optional unit of measurement in their Google Earth software.

Oliver Smoot later became Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)."  

He returned to MIT on October 4, 2008 for a 50th anniversary celebration,including the installation of a plaque on the bridge. Smoot was also presented with an official unit of measurement: a smoot stick.

Speaking of stange measurements and their origins... two ancient measurements that really have a common origin are the cubit, and the ell. Both, in some form, measure the distance from the elbow to the finger tips. At one time almost every country had an Ell, and almost none of them were the same. During the monarchy of Edward I, he made a law that every town have an ellwand, a rod of length one ell, that was used as an official measure. The cubit is the same measure but the word is from the Latin cubitum (elbow), and is related to the Latin word that means to lie down. By whichever name it is a very old unit of measure and frequently known by a word relating to "forearm" or the elbow, such as, Greek pekhys and Hebrew ammah.

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