Unit of measurement elected head of standards board

the definition of smootsOliver Smoot is one of the quintessential pieces of MIT folklore: in 1962 as a pledge of Lambda Chi Alpha Mr. Smoot was flipped over 365 times to measure the Harvard bridge while his fraternity brothers marked off important milestones along the way. Smoot was deemed a unit of measurement, and the Harvard bridge listed at 364.4 Smoots plus an ear. In Smoot’s words:

As with many pledge tasks, there was an easy way out if a little ingenuity was exercised — namely use a string. In any case, Pete, Gordon, Nate and Bill agreed to help us and we set off with the paint, chalk, etc. Unfortunately, a brother in the class of ’61 thought this task was so hilarious that he accompanied us. With him there, we had no choice but to do the actual measurements. I can tell you that even then I could not do the equivalent of 365 push-ups, so much of the way I was carried or dragged.

Cut to 42 years later. Oliver P. Smoot is now chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). He is being forced to step down because he has just accepted the position of president of the International Standards Organization.

Is it just irony that a unit of measurement was elected to be the Grand Poobah of international standards? Or is it that Smoot has been cast into this position by that one fateful night, unable to escape his role as a measuring stick? Or perhaps he is an obsessed megalomaniac who will settle for nothing less than the Smoot being recognized as the basis for all measurement?

In any event, I’m sure his position is quite deserved, as in the past he has shown us all that he is a great ruler.

ANSI: Oliver R. Smoot elected head of ISO
MIT Museum: The Definition of the Smoot

12 thoughts on “Unit of measurement elected head of standards board

  1. If a Smoot is the length/heightwise magnitude of Mr. Smoot, and the bridge is comprised of 364 and a fraction Smoots (4/10ths), then why the ear? Does it grow on the top of his head?

    Or is the true Smoot unit 1 Smoot ear?

  2. In a similar vein I am hoping to have a unit of electricity named after me. The “Cass” will be the base standard at which I lose consciousness.

  3. Just to respond to the ear question. Originally it was supposed to represent the margin of error. It read “+/- an ear” (as opposed to “+/- epsilon”). Over the years, the minus somehow disappeared so now it’s just “+ an ear” …

  4. According to some webpages, Mr. Smoot was 5 feet seven inches tall when the Harvard Bridge was measured, but at least one webpage has 5 feet three inches. Are these all just tall stories?

  5. The Smoot is also listed as a unit of measurement in the new Google Earth program.

    The Mackinac Bridge between Michigan’s peninsulas is approximately 3875 Smoots in length. 🙂

    -Ghoti

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