The Measure of This Man Is in the Smoot

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Dec. 7 -- Oliver R. Smoot knows from measurement.

For one thing, he is on the brink of retiring from the board of the American National Standards Institute, a Washington-based association that helps set standard units and guidelines for everything from fire sprinklers to computer files.

For another: As every Massachusetts Institute of Technology student probably knows, the man is a measure himself.

Forty-seven years ago, Smoot's fellow MIT fraternity pledges used his body to measure a bridge near the campus, painting marks at every 10 Smoots. Somewhat miraculously, the markings have been repainted ever since -- meaning that while Smoot was pursuing a quiet career in the Washington association bureaucracy, he was also becoming a Boston area landmark and a nerd legend.

"The first time I went to an MIT gathering of undergraduates," Smoot said in a telephone interview this week, "I introduced myself to this young man, and he said, 'Oh, I thought you were dead.' "

Smoot, 65, of Falls Church, is retired from his day job as a vice president at the Information Technology Industry Council -- a high-tech trade group in Washington.

At the end of this month, he will also leave his volunteer post at the standards institute, a group whose work includes overseeing the standards set by industry associations. The institute's members include the departments of Commerce, Energy and Defense, and numerous federal agencies refer to the standards it sets, a spokesman for the institute said.

Smoot was chairman of the institute's board in 2001 and 2002 and has remained on the board as past chairman. On Thursday, he will be honored at the institute's board meeting at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel. His departure was first reported by the Boston Herald.

For those who know Smoot, his work with standards is either truly amazing or not surprising at all.

"I guess some people are just destined to make a mark in their field," said Peter Miller, a pledge brother who helped paint the Smoot marks.

The story of how Smoot came to be a unit of distance, and how what is officially known as the Harvard Bridge -- a span that carries Massachusetts Avenue across the Charles River from Cambridge to Boston -- came to be called "Smoot Bridge," began in the fall of 1958.

Two upperclassmen in the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity had a brainstorm: They didn't like the long, cold walk across the river to campus, and wanted a way to tell how much bridge they had left to cross. So they decided to make the pledges use one of their own to measure the bridge.

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