Smoot, Namesake of a Unit of Length, Retires

Oliver Smoot is retiring from his chairmanship of the American National Standards Institute. He lent his name — and body — to the "smoot" — a unit of length, equal to his height (5 feet, 7 inches).

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In the universe of weights and measures, there are, of course, ounces and meters and furlongs, and then there are garns, scovilles and smoots. The garn, named after former US Senator Jake Garn, who flew on a space shuttle mission and was so relentlessly sick that the garn has become a measure of space sickness. The scoville unit measures the heat of chili peppers. It's named for Wilbur Scoville, who created the heat scale in 1912. And the smoot, a unit of length named for Oliver Smoot by some clever brains at an MIT fraternity in 1958. Oliver Smoot joins us because we learned that he's about to retire from the board of the American National Standards Institute.

Thanks for being with us, Mr. Smoot.

Mr. OLIVER SMOOT (American National Standards Institute): Oh, you're quite welcome.

BLOCK: And tell us the story of how you became a unit of measure.

Mr. SMOOT: Our fraternity house at MIT was located across the Charles River from the campus, and the bridge there is about half a mile long. And especially if it's foggy or snowing, you can't tell where you are. So as one of our pledge tasks, we were assigned to measure the bridge, and out of the 14 pledges, I was the shortest. So they decided we would measure it in smoot lengths.

BLOCK: In smoot lengths. And what did that involve?

Mr. SMOOT: Well, that involved my lying down and one of my pledge brothers was measuring where my head was and then getting up and putting my feet there and going on across the bridge.

BLOCK: Right down the middle of the bridge.

Mr. SMOOT: Well, down the sidewalk.

BLOCK: Uh-huh. And was it the middle of the night?

Mr. SMOOT: It was 10:00, something like that.

BLOCK: And how long did all of this take?

Mr. SMOOT: About two hours.

BLOCK: And nobody stopped you and said, `What are you doing?'

Mr. SMOOT: Well, it took two hours partly because about three-quarters of the way across, a police car came along, luckily, from the other direction and decided to make a U-turn. And so we all fled for the campus at MIT and waited till they left, probably scratching their heads as to what in the world was going on.

BLOCK: Yeah. Now when you're lying down on that bridge, 10:00 at night--was it a cold night, by the way?

Mr. SMOOT: Well, it was very nice for Boston in October.

BLOCK: OK. You were lying down on that bridge. Were you thinking, `This may just be my path to fame. This could be really the start of something here'?

Mr. SMOOT: We thought this was a terrible waste of time that would not ever, you know, survive the next summer. But actually when next fall came and we were big sophomores, we decided to make the next year's pledge classes repaint what were, by then, pretty worn numbers. So every class since then has done the same thing.

BLOCK: Aha. Now how long is the Harvard Bridge if it's measured in smoots?

Mr. SMOOT: Three hundred and sixty-four point four, plus one ear.

BLOCK: One ear.

Mr. SMOOT: Well, we thought we had to have some allowance for the possibility that we had made some errors.

BLOCK: And was that the length or the width of an ear?

Mr. SMOOT: It was a length.

BLOCK: A smoot--you're how tall?

Mr. SMOOT: 5'7".

BLOCK: 5'7".

Mr. SMOOT: Was and still am. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: So the measurement holds up.

Mr. SMOOT: Right, so far.

BLOCK: Well, after all you've done over the course of your life, do you think anything quite measures up to the fact that you are a smoot and you are the official measure of the Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts?

Mr. SMOOT: No. I think I've done a lot of interesting things, but I can't think of anything that took such a short time, was so totally unplanned and has had such long-term consequences.

BLOCK: Well, Oliver Smoot, best of luck with your retirement.

Mr. SMOOT: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Oliver Smoot talking with us from his office here in Washington, DC. He's retiring from the board of the American National Standards Institute.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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