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The Measure of This Man Is in the Smoot
MIT's Human Yardstick Honored for Work

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.

Why Smoot? One reason was that, at 5 feet 7 inches, he was the shortest pledge, so the task would take the longest with him as the measuring stick.

But Tom O'Connor, one of the pledges' taskmasters, also had science in mind. "A name like Smoot, it sounds like 'meter,' 'watt,' 'ampere,' " said O'Connor, now 68 and head of a construction company in Boston. "It sounds scientific."

So one night, the pledges found a spare bucket of light-colored paint and started to work. Smoot would lie down, and his comrades would use chalk to mark where his head and feet were. At every 10 Smoots, they marked the interval with paint.

"Stone cold sober," said Claron Anderson, one of the pledges, rebutting speculation that the fraternity brothers were drunk at the time. Anderson is now 66 and living in California.

"This was a weeknight," said Miller, now 65 and living in Lexington, Mass.

The job wasn't easy for Smoot, who wound up doing dozens of push-ups as the group inched down the bridge. Then there was an exhausting sprint away from police, who happened by at about the 300-Smoot mark.

Eventually, the others wound up carrying him from one spot to another. But finally, they did reach the end of the bridge, marking it at 364.4 Smoots "and one ear."

At the time, they didn't understand what they had done. But their Smoots were destined to become part of campus culture, since they contained two key elements of a classic MIT prank: a hint of science and a low level of vandalism.

Jay Keyser, a professor emeritus at MIT and a chronicler of the school's wacky side, said: "What the Smoot does, it makes fun of measuring. . . . It makes fun of the precision of engineering."

But it took more than cleverness to guarantee the longevity of the Smoots. First, the fraternity had to make repainting the markings a required bit of scutwork for pledges.

And then there was a little help from the government: When the bridge was renovated about 15 years ago, officials agreed to let the markings stay, even going so far as to score the sidewalk at 5-foot-7 Smoot intervals instead of the usual six-foot ones.

"There's just so many things that could have made this just go away, and didn't," Smoot said. His son Stephen attended MIT in the late 1980s but was too tall to be a Smoot measure.

Today's Smoots are painted in bright orange and blue, with smudges of red, yellow and green from past years visible underneath. And the tale of the Smoot has been passed on with remarkably little distortion.

"He was a little guy from LCA, wasn't he?" asked Whitney Watson, 22, an MIT graduate student from Athens, Ohio, using an abbreviation for the fraternity. She and a companion, Ashley Richman, 23, of Frederick, agreed: "Everybody knows."

But even they couldn't quite believe the tale's ending. Was it really right that Smoot wound up doing something with standards and measures?

"I always thought it was a rumor," Watson said. "But guess it's true."

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