Harvard Bridge – Cambridge, Massachusetts - Atlas Obscura

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Harvard Bridge

This bridge was the birthplace of a unit of measurement based on a fraternity joke. 


This bridge across the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge is notorious not for how it was constructed or where it connects, but how it was measured by an MIT fraternity for a hazing ritual.

In 1958, the chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha at MIT used the fraternity’s shortest pledge, Oliver Smoot at 5 feet 7 inches (1.7018 meters), to measure the span of Harvard Bridge. Starting at the Boston end on the eastern sidewalk, they laid him down and marked off each length, painting indicators for every 10 “smoots.” The final measured figure was 364.4 smoots plus one ear. From this prank, the smoot became an informal unit of measurement

Smoot would go on to become the president of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), as well as having an informal unit of measurement named for him. Through Google’s search field, it can convert distances into smoots. When the bridge’s sidewalks were replaced in the 1980s, the concrete slabs used were each one smoot long instead of the standard six feet. A plaque celebrating the measurement was dedicated in 2008 on the 50th anniversary, and Lambda Chi Alpha pledges repaint the indicators every year.

Know Before You Go

The Harvard Bridge is part of Massachusetts Avenue also known as highway 2A.

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