by Robert Plotkin with addendum by Pete Hinze
I don't remember exactly when or where I was told about the origin of "the Smoot." Perhaps it was on a tour of MIT in the fall of my senior year of high school. Perhaps I read about it on the commemorative plaque placed on the Harvard Bridge by the MIT class of '62 on its 25th anniversary. Or maybe it was just one of the many pieces of MIT trivia related to me by an upperclass student during my first few weeks here. How I found out about the Smoot is not particularly important. What is important was my reaction, a reaction which is probably almost universal among those who hear the strange tale: I laughed. The elements of humor in the story are clear. The name "Smoot" by itself is enough to evoke a giggle from most. This, in conjunction with the oft-quoted length of the bridge-"364.4 Smoots and one ear"-and the allusions to more well-known units of measurement such as the angstrom, meter, and light year, make for a good chuckle. But when light is shed on the details of the Smoot's creation, it loses some of its air of joviality. How, exactly, was the Smoot created? If we turn to the plaque on the Harvard Bridge, we are told that "in October 1958 the span of this bridge was measured, using the body of Oliver Reed Smoot, MIT '62." Not much information there. No mention of fraternities, pledging, or hazing. A bit more insight can be gained by listening to the words of Oliver Smoot himself, as quoted in The Tech in a 1989 article. He says that "in October 1958, O'Connor [a brother of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, of which Smoot was a pledge] devised the idea of marking the bridge off in pledge lengths. Scanning the assembled pledge class, he determined that I had the short end of the stick... a brother in the class of '61 thought this task was so hilarious that he accompanied us... I can tell you that even then I could not do the equivalent of 365 push-ups, so much of the way I was carried or dragged." Here the event loses much of its innocence. Smoot himself does not seem to look back on the event with either joy or disdain. Rather, he seems to look on it as something that he simply had no choice but to do, since it was the wish of a brother. I can already hear the cries objecting to my claim that the creation of the Smoot was, or may have been, an act of hazing. "Who did it hurt?" some might say, or "It was all in good fun," perhaps. What could there possibly be to complain about? To answer this question, one must look at the relationship that existed between the brothers and pledges of LCA. Why did Smoot and the other pledges go to the bridge? Because they had decided that it would be a fun thing to do? Because they had been convinced that it would be worthwhile? No. They did it because one of the LCA brothers, apparently on a whim, decided that Smoot had "the short end of the stick." Smoot says that he and the other pledges had originally planned to fake the measurements by using a string the length of his body. But when one of the brothers decided to accompany them, Smoot says that "we had no choice but to do the actual measurements." It is this blind submission to authority, the acceptance of the wishes and whims of others as inviolable commands, that has allowed so many fraternity and sorority pledges to engage in practices which are harmful to themselves and to others, even when they are not physically forced to do so. To laugh at Smoot's experience, to commemorate it with a plaque, to affirm its positive value during tours of the MIT campus, and for LCA to have its pledges continue to repaint the Smoot markings each year, is to condone this relationship of master and slave. Relatively few people at MIT know about the experience of Thomas Clark, a pledge at the MIT chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon, only two years before the Smoot measurement. Clark had been dropped off in a deserted area by Deke brothers and was told to find his way back to campus, a common pledging practice known as the "one-way ride." Clark did not return, and his body was found beneath a snow-covered reservoir a week later. He had drowned. Perhaps some time in the future an MIT class will commemorate its 25th anniversary with a plaque dedicated to the memory of Thomas Clark. Somehow I doubt it. reprinted from Thistle Volume 6 number 10 MORE ON THE SMOOTS... Though their prank was originally conceived "in good fun," it seems that Lambda Chi Alpha doesn't have much of a sense of humor concerning the Smoot markings, as an incident which occurred in November of 1993 indicates. Some members of another MIT fraternity, Tau Epsilon Phi (TEP), "hacked" the Smoot marks on October 19, 1993 by drawing smiley faces on the numbers and making other harmless doodles. About ten members of LCA confronted the busy hackers and "escorted" them back to the TEP house. Despite the location of the Smoot marks on public property, LCA has quite a possessive attitude towards them, and Neelesh Mehendale '94, who was president of LCA at the time of the TEP hack, threatened to call the police if no restorative action was taken by TEP. Perhaps LCA realized how empty a threat that was, because about three weeks later when TEP had still taken no action, some members of LCA took matters into their own hands. On November 12, several members of LCA broke into the TEP house, vandalized it, and splattered a noxious substance inside. They left as their marker an insulting and homophobic message painted on the sidewalk outside of TEP ("TO TEP: 33 NERDS + 1 QUEER"-a not-very-witty echo of the Smoot markings). Evidently, in the eyes of the members of LCA, it was all right for them to paint the bridge, but absolutely forbidden that anyone else should "infringe upon their territory". TEP's hack was neither malicious nor insulting to the members of LCA in any way, and did not involve the hazing of a pledge.