Smoot Lighting to Set the Mood on Harvard Bridge

by Jay London on October 21, 2014 · 5 comments

in Alumni Life, Campus Culture, Hacks, In the News, Remember When...

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Images Courtesy of Rosales + Partners

More than 50 years since its debut, the MIT-borne unit of measurement known as the Smoot is still growing in popularity.

For those uninitiated to MIT, the Smoot was concocted in October 1958 after a Lambda Chi Alpha headmaster sent seven students to calibrate the Harvard (Mass. Ave.) Bridge using 5’7 freshman Ollie Smoot ’62. The unofficial length: 364.4 Smoots, plus one ear. (A plaque commemorating the prank was added to the bridge in 2009.)

Oliver Smoot "62 is used to measure the  bridge in 1958.

Oliver Smoot ’62 is used to measure the bridge in 1958.

The measurement has long been a calculation used by Google, and in 2011, the word “Smoot” was added to the American Heritage Dictionary. Earlier this year, the Smoot finished in fourth place—garnering more than 2,600 votes—in a Slice contest to determine the MIT community’s favorite hack.

Anyone trekking across the bridge can relive Ollie Smoot’s journey—the measurements have endured as permanent markings, and Cambridge police often use the marks to report accident locations on the bridge.

And soon, thanks to a $2.5 million anonymous donation, the marking will be visible to more than pedestrians. According to the Boston Globe, the gift will pay for state-of-the art LED bulbs that will illuminate the bridge.

 “$2.5 million gift will shed light on the Harvard Bridge,” Boston Globe:

“The design utilizes energy-efficient bulbs on both the roadway and the pedestrian path, adding lighting at a lower level to make the bridge both more attractive and safer.

The roadway lights will be set every 30 Smoots. They will turn on for the night in sequence rather than all at once, a nod to the day more than 50 years ago when the year’s shortest pledge—who would go on to become chairman of the American National Standards Institute and president of the International Organization for Standardization—lay down again and again.”

The Boston architecture firm Rosales + Partners will oversee the design, led by Miguel Rosales SM ’87, the firm’s president and principal designer.

In an MIT News article commemorating the Smoot’s 50th anniversary, Ollie Smoot recounted the unplanned effort needed to calculate the new measurements.

Smoot reflects on his measurement feat as 50th anniversary nears,” MIT News:

“I don’t think any of us had the slightest idea how much work was involved with lying down, getting up,” Smoot said. “They had to help me a great way across the bridge. I started by doing a push-up, and then I couldn’t even do that. It deteriorated from there.”

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Toni Stimmel October 21, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Ah! It reminds me of the Parable of the Good Measurer who lays down his life for his measurements.


Toni Stimmel October 21, 2014 at 2:14 pm

I guess VooDoo (circa 1957) was right, “Blessed are the censors for they shall inhibit the earth.”


Richard Dey December 17, 2016 at 4:02 pm

I’m glad one 5’7″ guy born in 1940 lay down for posterity! Having made our mark, we can all lie down in peace. As Tiny Tim said … forget what he said, but we’re all with him. Thank yo Oliver, you’ve given us a new twist! (and we love the lights!)


Steve Cohen October 23, 2014 at 12:40 pm

I believe that the length is in fact 364.4 Smoots plus or minus one ear. As every engineer knows, no measurement is perfect, so tolerances are necessary for a meaningful value.


Toni Stimmel December 17, 2014 at 1:37 pm

The ‘VooDoo’ reply was meant for a different article, not the ‘Smoots’ one.


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