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The Marks Of Smoot May Soon Be Moot

January 14, 1989

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ The Smoot marks are vanishing from the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, and the 30-year legacy of Oliver R. Smoot Jr. and his fraternity brothers may soon be just another MIT legend.

″There’s no item in our contract concerning the replacement of Smoots,″ said Ed McInnis, superintendent for Modern Continental Construction Co., the general contractor on the bridge repair job.

Late one night in October 1958, members of Lambda Chi Alpha at Massachusetts Institute of Technology used Smoot to blaze a new trail in distance measurement and fraternity prankdom.

Smoot’s 5-feet-7 frame was manhandled, length by length, to measure the distance of the span crossing the Charles River, which is also known as the Harvard Bridge. The idea was to let strollers know how far they had to go.

The fraternity brothers painted Smootmarks on the bridge walkway: ″10 Smoots,″ ″20 Smoots,″ and so on, reporting that the distance they measured was ″364.4 Smoots, plus one ear.″

Successive fraternity members have repainted the Smoots twice a year. But the work to replace the cracked and corroded bridge has already destroyed the Smoots on the bridge’s west sidewalk. If the repair timetable goes as expected, the east Smoots will be gone by fall.

The construction crew says the remaining Smoots could be saved if someone foots the bill. Labor Steward Henry Troville said the Smoots could be cut out of the old concrete and implanted in the new.

But he didn’t think much of that idea, saying the 60 or so coats of paint make the Smoot lines very slippery. ″I’ve seen many bicyclists brought down by the Smoots,″ he told The Boston Globe.

Smoot, now 48, an executive vice president of a Washington-based computer and business equipment association, said he is optimistic about the ultimate fate of the Smoot.

He said there may be a future for a microSmoot or a kiloSmoot. ″I understand that the yard got its start as the length of the king’s arm and the inch was the width of a knuckle,″ he said.

But there is a move among students to ″reSmoot″ the rebuilt bridge using the original’s son, Stephen R. Smoot, 21, an MIT junior. He has not yet committed himself to the project.

The junior Smoot also cautioned that his height, 5-feet-11, would result in a different calibration.

But reSmooting the bridge would correct an error. The original group overlooked a bridge section that spans Storrow Drive on the Boston side of the river.

″So they were off by approximately 26.87 Smoots, give or take an ear,″ McInnis said.

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