50 Years Ago, Smoot Made a Lasting Mark on Cambridge

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A headline from the Friday, Oct. 3 article “50 Years Ago, Smoot Made a Lasting Mark on Cambridge” incorrectly listed Oliver Smoot’s height as 67”. Although the unit of a Smoot is 67”, the man himself is 66 11/16”. Additionally, the original commemorative project was to repaint the railings of the Harvard Bridge — not the Smoot marks — and that plan was opposed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation, not Cambridge officials.

After decades of cheering pedestrians during the long trek across the Harvard Bridge, the Smoot marks turn fifty tomorrow, and MIT students and alumni are gearing up to celebrate a tradition that spans generations with a shoreline cleanup, a concert by famed oldies group “The Platters,” and a 1950s-themed party.

Oliver Smoot ’62, the man who many years ago gave his name (and height) to the measurements that span the bridge, will speak at the beginning of the celebration at a lunch at the Kresge barbecue pits. The class of 1962 will present a new plaque commemorating the Smoot, which was designed and created in the Hobby Shop by Ilan Moyer ’08 and Melissa Rothstein. It will be installed on the Cambridge side of the bridge and will replace a plaque added during the Smoot marks’ 25th anniversary which has since disappeared, Associate Director of Student and Alumni Relations Katie C. Maloney said.

Following the barbecue, MIT community members will work to pick up trash, repaint the railing, and perform maintenance along the Charles River shoreline, as Cambridge officials would not allow the Smoot marks themselves to be repainted. Casey said a number of fraternities and sororities would be participating as groups and that other students can sign up as individuals or groups on the event’s website at

At 5 p.m., community members will be able to attend a concert by “Herb Reed and the Platters,” a popular rock group from the 50’s and 60’s. “They were huge,” Director of FSILG Alumni Relations Bob Ferrara, who is heading up the planning for the day’s celebrations, said. “The alumni from the 50’s and 60’s are all really excited about it.”

After the concert, the day’s sponsors, which include the MIT Club of Boston, the Class of 1962, and Lambda Chi Alpha, will host the “Big 50’s Party” at the MIT Museum. The event will feature music, food, and memories from the 1950s, including a performance from alumni of the MIT Logarhythms and the dedication of the official “Smoot Stick,” a 5’7” stick — the official length of a Smoot — which will be presented to Oliver Smoot. Students who participated in the community service event that morning will be given free tickets to the event.

The inspiration for the event came last year, when author Robert Tavernor published the book “Smoot’s Ear: The Measure of Humanity,” Ferrara said. Although the book drew on the Smoot story mostly in the title, Tavernor came to MIT to promote the book and his author’s talk became a joint Club of Boston and LCA event where Smoot himself made an appearance. The interest in the event and the story convinced Ferrara and Casey that, with the 50th anniversary approaching, it would be appropriate to turn it into a large-scale celebration.

But the real inspiration came fifty years ago when the new pledges of LCA were commanded to measure the Harvard Bridge using the body of the shortest pledge — Smoot. As the story goes, LCA pledgemaster Tom O’Connor ’60 had come up with the idea; he was tired of crossing the bridge on his way to and from Boston without any idea of how far he had to go.

So on a Thursday night in October, the pledges set out with a bucket of light-colored paint — probably white wall paint gathered from the supplies closet, Smoot recalled — and began to measure the bridge using chalk to mark each body length. Every tenth Smoot was marked with a line of paint, and every fiftieth Smoot was marked with the current distance in Smoots. The group’s original intention was to measure the majority of the bridge with string after some calibration, but an LCA brother who was walking by decided to stay and watch, and so the plans to cut corners were dropped.

It was a tiring night for Smoot, who had to sit up and down over three hundred times, and who, by the end of the bridge, had to be carried from one spot to the next.

“It took seven of us to do it,” Smoot emphasized. “I don’t know if seven is the optimal number… but we actually probably could have used more people to lift and put me back down because after a while my arms pretty much gave out. It took a bunch of us to do this, and that was one of the purposes of this pledge task: to teach us that we needed to work with each other and get along and cooperate.”

Around the 300-Smoot mark, a policeman drove by, prompting a mad dash from the scene of the crime. But after that close shave, there was surprisingly little reaction to the prank, either from the police or from students. Smoot noted that since there was “nothing that identified Lambda Chi or MIT” there was no reason to expect police at the fraternity’s doorstep. But students outside of the fraternity didn’t ask Smoot about the marks either, even though his name was painted on the bridge at various points.

In fact, it was several years before Smoot perceived that the Smoot marks had become more than just “marks on the sidewalk” to MIT students. “I graduated and started my life,” he said. “I enrolled in law school, got a job, got married; there were a lot of things going on, and I didn’t really give it much thought,” he said.

“I think it was in the 70’s that people began to ask me if I was involved with this. At first it was embarrassing; at this point it’s delightful. It’s very nice to be part of something that has turned out to be quite positive for the fraternity and for MIT.”

Indeed, the prank soon became an MIT tradition, in part because of its clear functionality; for weary pedestrians, the Smoot marks shortened a trek longer than twice the length of the Infinite.

“That’s why it became an instant hit, because it serviced a real need, knowing where you are on the bridge,” Ferrara said. “Even the police use it now.”

“It was a very practical thing, but the part that nobody could foresee was what could become of [Smoot’s professional] trajectory,” Ferrara added, referring to the fact that Smoot went on to serve on the board of, and eventually head, both the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization.

The weekend promises to be an exciting time for alumni to reunite. For the members of Lambda Chi Alpha, it has special significance.

“We’re just really excited; [painting the Smoots] is an awesome tradition, and it’s something we take a lot of pride in,” LCA president Brandon Suarez ’09 said.