Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Smoot

Only at an institution the caliber of MIT could a fraternity prank still be internationally revered after 50 years. Of course I’m referring to the invention of the “Smoot.” Named after Oliver R. Smoot (class of ’62), the “Smoot” became a part of MIT lore when one frigid night in October 1958, Smoot and a group of his Lamda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers laid his 5-foot, 7-inch frame end-to-end to measure the span of the Harvard Bridge along Massachusetts Avenue that crosses over the Charles River connecting Boston and Cambridge.

The idea was to use Oliver Smoot as a unit of measurement to determine the length of the bridge. As he repeatedly lay down and got up again, it turned out the 2164.8 foot bridge is 364.4 Smoots (plus or minus an ear). The original colorful “Smoot marks” painted on the sidewalk are touched up each year by incoming Lambda Chi Alpha students. A Smoot is recognized enough that it’s even possible to use Google’s calculator function to convert any measurement to Smoots. For example, in the Google search box enter “1 kilometer in Smoots” and click the Search button to find that “1 kilometer = 587.613116 Smoots.”

After graduating from MIT with a degree in Economics, Politics & Science, Smoot received a law degree from Georgetown University. Since then he has served as chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and president of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO). Smoot claims the prank had little influence in his career path.

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