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 spotlight: a salute to Smoot

Smoot makes his mark in standards and measurements

Susan Curran, MIT Home Page
December 19, 2005

  Home - MIT Oliver Smoot, MIT class of 1962, is retiring from his chairmanship of the American National Standards Institute. He lent his name, and not coincidentally also his height, to a unit of measurement which is now part of history.

As almost every MIT student knows, a smoot is a unit of length equal to five feet seven inches. Most students also know that the length of the Mass. Ave. bridge between MIT and Boston is precisely 364.4 smoots and one ear.

A fact that's not as widely known however, is what Smoot himself did after graduating from MIT. After receiving a law degree from Georgetown he went on to set high standards, quite literally as President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). He has also served as chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

He recently retired, and got a flurry of media attention, including articles in the Washington Post and a radio interview on NPR's All Things Considered. He has also been included in Google Calculator. If you enter "10 feet in smoots" into Google, the calculator will tell you that 10 feet equals 1.79104478 smoots. Google also uses the Smoot as an optional unit of measure in Google Earth.

why smoots?

This unique unit of measurement was developed in October 1958, Smoot's freshman year, and is one of the more famous MIT hacks.

It came about as a way to measure the length of the Mass. Ave. bridge, and gauge the distance between the Boston fraternities and main MIT campus on cold days. The pledgemaster for Smoot's fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, used Smoot as a measure because he was the shortest, and because the name sounded "scientific," like "meter" or "watt."

They laid him down, end over end, and painted the markings that still bear his name. The name and legend have endured renovations to the bridge, 47 years of LCA pledges, who repaint the markings every year, and two additional Smoots (son Stephen '90 and daughter Sherry '99). Alas, Stephen was too tall to follow in his father's footsteps, and the smoots almost became history. Smoot himself is not yet history, however, despite any rumors. In an interview with the Washington Post, Smoot recalled the the first time he went to an MIT gathering of undergraduates. "I introduced myself to this young man, and he said, 'Oh, I thought you were dead.' "

For more on the story of Smoot, listen to the NPR interview and read the Washington Post article The Measure of This Man Is in the Smoot.

More links
Wikipedia listing
Lambda Chi Alpha history
West Coast alums train for Boston Marathon in smoots, not miles
  Oliver Smoot
Oliver Smoot: on
his retirement
from ANSI


Measuring the Harvard Bridge in
Measuring the Harvard Bridge
in "Smoots":
left to right: Oliver
Smoot, Peter S. Miller, Gordon
Mann, Nathan Hopton, William Edmiston


SMOOTS - A Boston Tradition
SMOOTS - A Boston Tradition: repainting the bridge in 1987