Understanding the Smoot

With many years of experience as a professionally licensed land surveyor, I thought I had encountered all of the units of measurement utilized in my field. However, a recent interaction with Google Earth taught me that no matter the level of one’s expertise, it’s always possible to be presented with new information.

While trying to estimate a surveying project, I was using Google Earth to locate the project site and get an overview of the site conditions. I frequently use tools in Google Earth to measure areas and distances between landmarks to give me an idea of what kind of distance a crew will need to cover on the ground. I had just gotten a new computer and many of the settings I had saved in the program were lost. As I started to use the ruler command, I noticed that the default unit was set to centimeters, so I clicked the drop-down box to select a different measurement unit. The options included meters, kilometers, inches, feet, yards, miles, nautical miles, and, curiously, smoots.

“Wait!” I thought. “What on earth is a smoot?” I had never heard of that unit of measurement before. So I turned to Google with my question. To my surprise and pleasure I found several articles explaining the measurement.

The long and short of it is that a smoot is a unit of measurement that measures exactly 5 feet 7 inches (or 67 inches or 1.7018 meters – sorry, surveyors tend to get carried away with conversions). The smoot was created in 1958 when Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity members at MIT decided to use a pledge, Oliver R. Smoot, Jr., to calculate the length of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge. Smoot lay down on the bridge, his fraternity brothers marked his head and feet, then he moved down one length and the process was repeated until the entire length of the bridge had been measured. The fraternity painted markings every ten smoots. The length of the bridge was calculated at 364.4 smoots, plus one ear. Succeeding pledge classes repainted the markings; it is a tradition that continues to this day.

I found this to be very entertaining and educational at the same time. In this age of information and technology we have everything at our fingertips – literally. Just the other day I downloaded an app to my smart phone called “Convert Pad”. Exploring the app, I found a length/distance converter, and old Oliver Smoot surfaced once again. We can often become so entrenched in what we do on a daily basis that we think we have become masters of our profession. This little insight reminded me we never stop learning.