Love Letters to Boston: 20 Smoots ‘til Cambridge

Well, folks, it’s time for our last love letter to Boston of the semester! Don’t you worry though, this city is plenty weird, and I’m sure we’ll be back next semester with more tales of local lore.

Today, I’m going to introduce you to a unit of measurement that started as a fraternity prank, but soon became a well-known and well-loved feature of the Harvard Bridge: the smoot. 

The smoot came to be in October of 1958, when some pledges of the MIT chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha went out to the Harvard Bridge. The Harvard Bridge connects Boston to Cambridge right near MIT’s campus, so this was the perfect place for their (extremely silly) prank.

The Lambda Chi house is actually one of the MIT frat houses that is on BU’s Bay State Road, and the upperclassmen often walked across the Harvard Bridge in the dreary Boston weather to get to their classes. They decided that they wanted to be able to quickly know how much of the bridge they had left to cross until they got to MIT in Cambridge (keep in mind, this is long before Google Maps could tell us how long it would take to walk from one place to the other).

Their pledges’ assignment was to measure the bridge using one of their members as the unit of measurement — Oliver R. Smoot was chosen to make the task harder for the pledges, because he was the shortest one there at 5 ft 7 in.

They had Smoot lay down on the bridge, marked the sidewalk with chalk, and paint at about every 10 smoots, with some exceptions. They repeated that process over and over and over again until they had measured the length of the Harvard Bridge in smoots. 

Legend says that between getting up and down about a hundred times and being chased by the cops, which happened around the 300th smoot, Oliver Smoot was so tired that the other pledges ended up carrying/dragging him to the next place. 

The bridge, in case you were wondering, ended up being measured as 364.4 smoots. However, being MIT frat boys, they added a marking at the end that says “± 1 Ear,” because they had to acknowledge the margin of error. 

One thing that I find interesting about the story of the smoot is that the Cambridge Police Department never removed the marks from the bridge. Sixty-one years later, you can still find the smoots on Harvard Bridge, and they’ve even become somewhat of a tourist attraction for people who know that they’re there.

The police acknowledge that the smoot markings are more than graffiti because they are now very much a part of Boston’s history. But beyond that, they actually requested the preservation of the marks during the Harvard Bridge renovations in the 80s, saying that they were actually used in police reports to describe certain locations on the bridge, which is fairly long. 

The Massachusetts Highway Department, respecting the significance of the smoot, went above and beyond during the renovations by marking the concrete every 5 feet and 7 inches instead of every 6 feet, which is the standard. 

The smoot has gained enough traction that you can even convert a measurement to and from smoots using Google’s unit converter. 

The legend of the smoot has grown to the point where it is now a beloved part of local lore. Lambda Chi repaints the smoot markings once or twice a year to this day. Next time you’re crossing the Harvard Bridge, make sure to look down and check how many smoots to go until Cambridge.

 

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