Brad Feld

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The Retired Smoot

Dec 10, 2005

Anyone that’s walked (or run) across the Harvard (aka Mass Ave) bridge has noticed little numbers painted on it that end at 364.4 (and one ear).  If you are an MIT grad, you know that in 1958 Oliver Smoot and his frat brothers from Lambda Chi Alpha measured the bridge in “Smoots” (Smoot was 5’7” and was the shortest dude in his pledge class), painting the bridge in intervals of Smoots one fall evening.  This tradition of repainting the bridge has lasted since 1958 and I always get a chuckle in the fall when I end up in Boston and go for a run that crosses a bridge when I hit “69” or “halfway to hell”.

Oliver Smoot retired last week.  His day job was as Vice President at the Information Technology Industry Council (DC-based high-tech trade group).  He also served on the board of the American National Standards Institute, the DC-based association that sets standard units and measurement guidelines. 

Ok – pause and think about it – the guy that became the unit of measure for the Harvard Bridge (a Smoot) has been serving on the board of the American National Standards Institute.  I love it.  NPR had a great interview with Oliver Smoot on Pearl Harbor Day – if you’ve ever walked across the Harvard Bridge, you’ll get a good chuckle out of it.

Smoot is now a serious and endearing measurement.  If you ever wondered how long the Harvard Bridge actually is, Google Calculator will happily provide a translation from smoots to yards.  I expect that if you are a math nerd, you’ve known for a long time that the ear is a proxy for epsilon.