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This Month In MIT History

By Andy Kostoulas

Anyone who has ever walked across the Harvard Bridge is familiar with the Smoot markings along the sidewalk of the bridge. It was in October 1958 that these markings, totalling 364.4 Smoots plus one ear, first came into existence.

The Smoots are named after Oliver R. Smoot ’62, who was a pledge of Lambda Chi Alpha at the time the markings were created. Tom O’Connor, Smoot’s pledgemaster, devised the idea of marking the Harvard Bridge in pledge lengths so that students crossing the bridge would know how far from campus they were. After examining the pledge class, he chose Smoot as the specified unit of length because he was shortest -- 5’7”.

The pledges originally intended to use a string to do most of the measurements. However, one of the sophomores in the fraternity, Charles M. Annis ’61 “came on his bike from MIT and saw what we were doing, which was pretty unfortunate,” said Smoot in a recent interview. The upperclassman decided to accompany the group and as a result, the pledges were forced to actually use Smoot himself for all the measurements. By the end, Smoot had become so tired from repeatedly getting up and lying down that he needed to be dragged along.

Around 300 Smoots into the project, the police saw the students with their paint cans and stopped to investigate. “We took off -- luckily we weren’t in the middle,” said Smoot. “I guess they went back and looked and decided it couldn’t be bad for people to paint the bridge.”

They finished painting the bridge and accounted for any errors they may have made in measuring the bridge. “In 8.01 they talked about experimental error. Sufficiently small error could be denoted with an epsilon.” This brought about the “+ 1 ear” addendum, which was originally “± 1 ear”

“My senior year the house moved to 99 Bay State Road on the other side of the bridge, so they made the pledge class do both sides,” said Smoot. Other additions such as the “Halfway to Hell” markings came after Smoot’s time.”

The markings, which appear every ten Smoots, are repainted at least biannually by the Lambda Chi Alpha pledge class using different colors. “After the bridge was rebuilt in the late 1980s, the Smoot markings reappeared and the tradition continued.” <http://web.mit.edu/museum/fun/smoots.html> Lambda Chi Alpha brothers used string to measure out the markings before the bridge was torn down, the found that in some cases their predecessors had miscounted, measuring out nine or eleven Smoots.

“The police have come to accept the Smoot marks. In fact, they use the markers to indicate locations when filing accident reports.” <http://web.mit.edu/museum/fun/smoots.html>

The Smoot markings have become well known outside of Boston as well. The New York Times included them in a travel special and author Robert Parker mentioned them in several of his novels. “The word has spread. It is really quite interesting.”

Katharyn Jeffreys contributed to this story