Smoot Name Bridges Universe, River

The name "Smoot" is known in scientific circles as much as for measuring the distance between the cities of Cambridge and Boston, Mass., as for George F. Smoot's Nobel Prize-winning study of "wrinkles" in the universe.

In 1958, Smoot's cousin, Oliver R. Smoot Jr., an MIT freshman and Lamda Chi Alpha fraternity pledge, was rolled head-over-heels across the length of Harvard Bridge, which spans the Charles River and divides Cambridge and Boston.

Oliver Smoot stood 67 inches tall — five feet, seven inches — and every 10 complete rolls, a marker was painted on the bridge walkway to mark a "smoot."

The bridge was found to be exactly 364.4 smoots — plus an ear — in length.

Nearly 30 years later, when the state Dept. of Public Works decided to replace the concrete walkway, MIT graduates successfully rallied to "save the smoot" markings on the fabled bridge.

The Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), the state agency managing the bridge, went on record in support of the "smoot."

"We recognize the smoots' role in local history," the MDC wrote. "That's not to mean that the agency encourages graffiti painting. But smoots aren't just any kind of graffiti. They're smoots! If commemorative plaques and markers are not installed by the state once the bridge work is done, then we'll see that it's done."

Oliver Smoot, by then 48 and a business executive, refused to be re-rolled the length of the bridge to restore the smoot marks.

Stephen Smoot, his son and also an MIT student, stepped forward to help redo the measurement, but because he was 72 inches tall — six feet even — his offer was declined.

Eventually, the smoot marks were not only restored, but the construction company repairing the bridge used 67-inch concrete walkway slabs to honor the smoot.

A plaque on the bridge reads: "This plaque place in honor of THE SMOOT, which joined the angstrom, meter and light year as standards of length, when in October 1958 the span of this bridge was measured, using the body of Oliver Reed Smoot, M.I.T. '62 and found to be precisely 364.4 smoots and one ear. Commemorated at our 25th reunion June 6, 1987 M.I.T. Class of 1962."