Saturday, 2:15 PM
Ceremony honors Smoot, the man who became a measurement
By Terri Schwartz, Globe Correspondent
For five decades, people crossing the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge have noticed markings that indicated its length in "Smoots." Some may have assumed that the engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which sits on the Cambridge side of the span, had invented a sophisticated new unit of measurement.
Those who inquired further learned a quirky story that has become part of Boston lore. The Smoot was invented at MIT, yes, but not in any lab. It was the brainchild of a group of fraternity brothers on a cold night in 1958 who, in a fit of whimsy, used Oliver "Ollie" Smoot Jr. as their unit of measurement when they marked the bridge.
"It was 10 at night, and the wind was blowing, and so it was cold," said Smoot, who appeared at a ceremony at MIT today in his honor.
The event honoring the man who became a measurement was attended by about 100 people, including Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons, State Representative Marty Walz, and MIT President Susan Hockfield.
"This has become a delightful chapter in the history of MIT, the history of Cambridge, the history of the nation, and, I would like to assert, the history of the world,” said Hockfield.
Smoot, who was 5 feet 7 inches at the time, was laid out head-to-foot across the length of the bridge, which connects Cambridge and Boston. The final measurement ended at 364.4 Smoots and one ear, which converts to 2164.8 feet.
Somebody asked Smoot recently why he laid down so many times, when he could have simply paced off the distance. He said it never occurred to the group. “That would have been a whole lot easier,” he said sheepishly.
The Smoot measurement has won fame far beyond Boston. The story of its creation spawned a book entitled “Smoot’s Ear: The Measure of Humanity” by Robert Tavernor. The Smoot has also been added as a unit of measurement on the Google calculator, allowing people worldwide to employ the Smoot, if they choose.
Smoot said he had no idea, initially, that the unit of measurement would catch on. “We really didn’t hear anything about [the marks remaining on the bridge], and I didn’t have very much contact with MIT for maybe almost 10 years, so I was really surprised when somebody asked me, ‘Oh, do you know they still have the Smoot marks?’ Yeah, no, I didn’t know that,” said Smoot, 68, of San Diego, Calif.
On Thursday, the current freshmen of Smoot's Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity ventured out in the middle of the night for the yearly repainting of the marks on the bridge. On the long-ago night that Smoot and his friends painted the bridge, they were plagued by police concerned about vandalism. But Brandon Suarez, 22, a student leader, said the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has reached an agreement with students so officers now look the other way.
“I am here to say that we at the Department of Conservation and Recreation still support the Smoots,” DCR official Suzanne Wilson confirmed at the ceremony.
The celebration drew several Smoots who were not related to Oliver Smoot at all, but wanted to meet the man who made their last name famous.
“People were always asking us if we were related to the Smoot from the Mass. Ave. Bridge – the MIT Bridge. We call it the Smoot Bridge,” said John M. Smoot, a Boston judge.
“I think that the Smoot tradition is very unique. The story is really fun. It’s just one those things that people kind of attach to,” said Suarez.
This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.