Smoot lighting to set the mood on Harvard Bridge


An anonymous gift will pay for LED bulbs that will illuminate the bridge every 30 Smoots.

By Jay London of the MIT Alumni Association for the MIT Press.


More than 50 years since its debut, the MIT-borne unit of measurement known as the Smoot is still growing in popularity.

For those uninitiated to MIT, the Smoot was concocted in October 1958 after seven MIT students calibrated the Harvard (Mass. Ave.) Bridge using 5’7 freshman Oliver Smoot ’62. The unofficial length: 364.4 Smoots, plus one ear. (A plaque commemorating the prank was added to the bridge in 2009.)

The measurement has long been a calculation used by Google, and in 2011, the word “Smoot” was even added to the American Heritage Dictionary.

Anyone trekking across the bridge can relive Smoot’s journey; the measurements have endured as permanent markings, and the Cambridge Police often use the marks to report accident locations on the bridge.

And soon, thanks to a $2.5 million anonymous donation, the marking will be visible to more than pedestrians. According to the The Boston Globe, the gift will pay for state-of-the art LED bulbs that will illuminate the bridge.

“The design utilizes energy-efficient bulbs on both the roadway and the pedestrian path, adding lighting at a lower level to make the bridge both more attractive and safer,” the Globe wrote on October 14. “The roadway lights will be set every 30 Smoots. They will turn on for the night in sequence rather than all at once, a nod to the day more than 50 years ago when the year’s shortest pledge — who would go on to become chairman of the American National Standards Institute and president of the International Organization for Standardization — lay down again and again.”

The Boston architecture firm Rosales + Partners will oversee the design, led by Miguel Rosales SM ’87, the firm’s president and principal designer. A full conceptual plan of the bridge improvements is now available from the Charles River Conservancy.

In an MIT News article commemorating the Smoot’s 50th anniversary, Oliver Smoot recounted the unplanned effort needed to calculate the new measurements.

“I don’t think any of us had the slightest idea how much work was involved with lying down, getting up,” Smoot told MIT News. “They had to help me a great way across the bridge. I started by doing a push-up, and then I couldn’t even do that. It deteriorated from there.”


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