Book Explores History of Measurement, MIT Smoot; Author, Smoot Visit Institute

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Oliver R. Smoot ’62 joined the freshmen of Lambda Chi Alpha for the annual re-painting of the Smoot-marks on the Harvard Bridge. Smoot was in town last week for a lecture on author Robert Tavernor’s new book, Smoot’s Ear: The Measure of Humanity.
Williard J. Johnson

The story of the MIT Smoot is gaining new fame, thanks to a recently-published book called “Smoot’s Ear: The Measure of Humanity.” Oliver R. Smoot ’62, the Smoot’s namesake, was on hand to hear author Robert Tavernor, an architect and professor of architecture and urban design at the London School of Economics and Political Science, discuss the book last Tuesday.

Those who traverse the Harvard Bridge regularly are probably familiar with the Smoot since the bridge is painted and measured as being 364.4 Smoots plus one ear. In the Stata Center, Tavernor recounted the story to his audience, a mix of students, alumni, and people unaffiliated with MIT. In 1958, Smoot, known to his friends as Ollie, was the shortest member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity pledge class and so “his body was chosen as sacrifice,” Tavernor said, by pledge trainer Thomas H. O’Connor, Jr. Under the supervision of an LCA brother, the other members of the pledge class were to mark off the entire length of the Harvard Bridge using Smoot’s body as a unit of measurement.

After more than two hours, Smoot’s body had covered the entire length of the bridge. Photographs of the process shown at the lecture revealed a scene “looking like something out of ‘Happy Days,’” Tavernor joked.

Tavernor’s book, which was five years in the making, details the history of measurement systems. There is the story of a man who tried to find the height of the Egyptian pyramids 2,500 years ago, using his body and the shadows as tools. The rise of the meter, a unit of measurement unconnected to humans, is also retold by Tavernor.

After the lecture, Smoot said that the book underlines the idea that “especially in human expressions like architecture, it is important to relate to people … it is helpful if the units are related to people.”

He added that because the meter is non-sacred, unlike the traditional pied de roi, or French royal foot, it has been assumed to have “some sort of perfect basis … [but] it’s a bunch of hokum.”

The Smoot earns mention in the book because it “encapsulates the personification of measures,” Tavernor said. “It is very, very different from the metric system.” The significance of Smoot’s Ear is that is stands for an approximation, a “plus or minus,” said Tavernor. This was a “tacit recognition” that the measurement wasn’t entirely accurate, he said.

Near the end of his lecture, Tavernor called Smoot a “living measure,” to which Smoot could be seen shaking his head as his fellow classmate and fraternity brother, Peter S. Miller ’64 grinned at him.

Smoot said that he was amazed that his name was part of the book’s title. “I did a little investigating to make sure it wasn’t a prank.”

During the questions that followed his lecture, Tavernor said that he thinks “it is incredibly important to embody measures” and that “humans … need to be able to deal in a direct way one to another.”

After the lecture, as audience members lined up to request “the famous Smoot” signature, Miller, who is now co-director of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, praised his famous classmate. Not only was Smoot the shortest in his pledge class, but “he was also the coolest.” “He was always friendly … and socially adept,” Miller said, chuckling.

A celebration is being planned for next year, which will mark the 50th year the Smoot has graced the bridge, said Stephen Huson ’84, an alumnus of LCA who served as the emcee of the lecture. A commemorative plaque was mounted to the bridge for the 25th anniversary of the Smoot but was “stolen within a week,” Smoot said.

In an ironic twist, Smoot went on to become the chairman of the American National Standards Institute and then, in January 2003, began a two-year term as president of the International Organization for Standardization. He is now retired and living in San Diego, Calif., where he jokes that he spends his time as an irrigation engineer, making sure the sun doesn’t scorch everything in sight.