Plaque Shows Off Alum Smoot’s Contribution to Measurement

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The engraving of the Smoot 50th Anniversary Plaque.
David M. Templeton—The Tech
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The Smoot 50th Anniversary Plaque is seen sitting on the vice of the Computer Numerical Controlled milling machine which worked it last Friday in the Hobby Shop in Building W31.
David M. Templeton—The Tech

Fifty years and seven months after the colorful markings first appeared across the 2164.8 foot (or 364.4 Smoot) span of the Harvard bridge’s sidewalks, a new plaque “In Commemoration of the 50th Year of the Smoot” (and in Honor of Oliver R. Smoot ’62) debuted in a special ceremony yesterday afternoon. The plaque was embedded in a concrete base on the bridge at the southwest corner of Memorial Drive and Massachusetts Avenue.

This will be the second plaque to mark the spot; the first, installed in 1984 on the 25th anniversary of the prank “lasted only about a month” before it disappeared, wrote Smoot in an e-mail.

Several of Smoot’s ‘62 fraternity brothers attended the ceremony. The plaque itself was unveiled by George M. Wyman ’62, president of Smoot’s graduating class.

Institute Chaplain Robert M. Randolph gave the blessing: “It stands for the reality that the serious work done here at MIT is enlivened by humor and whimsy. It reminds all that while victory may go to the strong, and the race may be won by the swift, in this place, in this city, on this bridge over the Charles River, all is measured by the Smoot and so it shall be now and forever more.”

In an e-mail, current Lambda Chi Alpha president Brandon H. Suarez ’09 emphasized the fraternity’s dedication to preserving the legacy of Smoot’s and reminisced about repainting the markings his freshman year: “I didn’t realize that what felt like a prank was actually an act of community service, perpetuating a connection between MIT and the community.”

Many of the construction companies on campus turned out to be part of that community. When organizers led by Robert V. Ferrara ’67 asked them for contributions, Bovis Lend Lease Construction (now working on the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research project) acted as general contractor on the project, S&F Concrete created the new plaque base, and the North American Site Developers helped demolished the old plaque base.

Although Smoot could not be present for the ceremony, he had been presented with an aluminum prototype of the plaque (being donated to the MIT Museum) during the 50th Smoot-aversary on campus last Oct. 4. Reached by e-mail, Smoot wrote that he found the plaque to be “really neat looking, informative and well designed.”

Ilan E. Moyer ’08 machined the titanium plaque which now serves to commemorate the famous 1962 MIT fraternity prank. The project, funded primarily by the Class of ’62, took over 80 hours, including prototyping and finishing, and Moyer had help from Hobby Shop Director Kenneth J. Stone ’72.

“The Smoots, which constantly update the bridge-traveler with knowledge of their progress, are … capable of evoking strong emotions regardless of whether you’re trying to escape or return home,” Moyer wrote in an e-mail describing his design. “I tried to capture these feelings with a bridge scene where a couple is standing next to the words ‘halfway to hell’ and gazing over the water longingly towards MIT.”

Security was also a concern in the design, Moyer wrote, detailing the precautions he had taken: “Four 5/8 inch diameter titanium threaded studs are welded to the back of the half-inch-thick plaque, and are potted into the concrete post. The post is in turn reinforced with rebar. Also, the surface of the plaque is recessed into the concrete to prevent the potential for prying.”

Over the past 50 years, the Smoot marks across the Harvard Bridge has been increasingly embraced not only by the MIT community, but by the larger Boston and global cyber-communities as well. When bridge was undergoing construction in the 1980s, the Boston Police requested that the Smoot markings be preserved (for their aid in identifying occurrences at various sections of the bridge), and this past fall, Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons declared Oct. 4 “Smoot Day” in the community. Beyond Cambridge, Smoots are recognized by the Google online calculator, which will convert the unit of one Smoot (5 feet and 7 inches) into various other units of measure. According to Smoot, “one ear” — the magnitude of uncertainty in the bridge measurement — is actually about 0.041 Smoots.

“How could so many people, including non-MIT people find the marks interesting, amusing and pleasing?” Smoot wrote. “It is great that MIT itself has embraced the existence of the marks — that was not always true.”

After graduating from MIT with a degree in Course XIIIIB (Economics, Politics & Science), Smoot received a law degree from Georgetown University. Since then he has served as both the chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the president of the Interntional Organization for Standardization (ISO). Asked if the prank had influenced his later career, Smoot wrote, “I wish I could say it was a straight line, but until I was asked to go onto the ANSI Board in the late 1980’s, I had never considered getting engaged in standards policy leadership.”