Measuring By the Meter, Foot, and Smoot

If you are accustomed to the metric system, imperial units can be perplexing. There is logic in the fact that there are 1,000 meters in a kilometer or ten centimeters in a meter. How are you supposed to remember that there are 5,280 feet in a mile, and why are there 12 inches in a foot?

Whether you are an advocate of metric or imperial measurements, it’s a fair bet to say that you’ve never described the length of anything using the unit of the smoot. A smoot, in case you didn’t know, is equal to 67 inches (1.7 meters).

Where did the smoot originate, and why is it such a seemingly random length? The story begins with a fraternity prank.

College fraternities are notorious for pranks and hazing rituals. In most educational institutions, these characteristics tend to gravitate toward activities designed to demonstrate stupidity or bring embarrassment to the participants. If you have participated in or witnessed any such stunts, your story probably includes alcohol, hair clippers, an animal, public nudity, or some combination thereof.

If you attend a school such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), fraternity pranks take on a decidedly more scientific appearance. In October 1958, the Lambda Chi Alpha (ΛΧΑ) fraternity of MIT was in the process of introducing its new members to the organization. They were given the task of measuring the length of Harvard Bridge.

Harvard Bridge spans the Charles River and connects Boston with Cambridge. Presumably, the students could have looked up the bridge’s length in the records on file with the appropriate government office. Alternatively, they could have used a tape measure, yardstick, or some other readily available instrument.

Instead, the students chose 18-year-old freshman Oliver R. Smoot. They had him lie down on the ground where his height of 5 feet 7 inches was marked on the sidewalk with chalk. He then stood up, walked up to the chalk mark, laid down, and allowed the process to repeat. After more than an hour of work, the students declared that Harvard Bridge was 364.4 “smoots” in length.

The Smoot experiment took on legendary status at MIT. If you visit Harvard Bridge, you will see graffiti that divides the bridge into smoot-based measurements. In 2008, a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of the event was dedicated.

The experience must have been quite formative for Oliver Smoot. In 2001, he was named Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). He went from there to serve as President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) from 2003 to 2004.

The American Heritage Dictionary added the word “smoot” in 2011. It is defined as “a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches.”

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