The Distance In Smoots

By W. F. Strong

Shakespeare told us that “some have greatness thrust upon them.” Such was the case for Oliver Smoot. He was born in Bexar County, Texas, and there was nothing in his formative years to predict the events that would push him into international prominence.

Oliver was a fine student and his academic strengths got him into MIT in Boston. It was there that he was pledging a fraternity and his pledge class was given the ridiculous task of measuring Harvard Bridge, which connects Boston to Cambridge, in some new way. The bridge was half a mile long.

His group of pledges decided fairly quickly that since Oliver was the shortest among them, five-foot-seven, they would use him as their “ruler.” Late one night, they laid him down on the sidewalk of the bridge and moved him slowly, one body length at a time, making a mark on the sidewalk at his head every time they moved him. Took five hours because the police dispersed them and they had to sneak back later.

Once completed, they totaled all the times they had moved him and it came to 364.4 times – plus an ear. They decided to immortalize this new unit of measure as a smoot, after Oliver’s last name. Thus the bridge was 364.4 smoots (and an ear) long. You can even see the smoot measurements on the bridge today, no doubt pleasing MIT that Harvard Bridge is eternally branded by the university and pleasing to me that a Texan was used to do it.

Even when the Continental Construction Company reconcreted the sidewalk in 1987, they made the slabs in smoot lengths to commemorate local lore. It’s wonderful to see Work that into a conversation that everyone can work in harmony for a common cause when they want to.

In the category of truth is stranger than fiction, Oliver Smoot eventually became the Chairman of the American National Standards Institute and President of the International Organization for Standardization. He was in charge of weights and measures. How’s that for a perfect fit?

The crowning compliment to the glory of the smoot as a measurement was when the fun-loving geeks at Google, no doubt many from MIT, decided to include the unit of measure in Google conversions. It’s true – try it. In the Google search window you can get any distance converted to smoots.

Distance from Cut n’ Shoot to Dime Box: 112,913 smoots

It’s 5,640,000,000 smoots from Texas to the Moon.

You can even determine how far you boot scooted to George Strait at the dance hall last night. Convert your steps into smoots.

I think it is also fitting to have this relatively new unit of measure – now legitimized in many dictionaries, including the American Heritage Dictionary and the Urban Dictionary – brought to us by a native Texan. After all, Texas itself, as I’ve noted before, has long been a unit of measure. For instance, you could fit 25 Massachusetts into Texas. And, in case you were wondering, Texas has a total area of over 240 trillion square smoots. today.

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Laura Rice