The Smoot And The Innovation Society

If you type the phrase smoot to inches into Google, do you know what Google replies?

1 Smoot = 67 inches.

But why is 1 Smoot equal to 67 inches? And why is that precise length named a Smoot?

The term was invented in October 1958 by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at M.I.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apparently, Oliver Smoot was a Student Pledge who served as the subject of the following frat house question: if M.I.T. possessed an infinite number of Oliver Smoots, how many would it need to form a human chain of persons laying “head to toe” from shore to shore across the Charles River?

To answer this question, the fraternity members escorted the young Mr. Smoot to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge, which links Cambridge and Boston. They then compelled him to be utilized as a human ruler on the Bridge’s pedestrian walkway, laying himself down, picking himself up, moving on to the next spot, and then laying himself down … over and over again.

The gentlemen discovered that precisely 364.4 Oliver Smoots would be needed to form a human chain from Cambridge to Boston. And because Oliver Smoot was – and, presumably, still is – 67 inches tall, a Smoot was immortalized as a unit of length that is equal to 67 inches.

The fraternity’s original ruler scratchings were left behind as graffiti on the walkway; they are now repainted by new fraternity pledges each year. The Massachusetts Department of Public Works and Metropolitan District Commission use those Smoot notations as official distance markings across the bridge.

You can easily view the preserved graffiti when you stroll across the pedestrian walkway on the “Boston to Cambridge” traffic side of the bridge. If you choose to do so, please dedicate a moment to considering the characteristics of the society that produced the fraternity prank that memorialized the Smoot.

Are other fraternity houses across the United States capable of formulating similar questions, whether serious or trivial? Are they then dedicating themselves to the necessary efforts to answer them? And are their neighbors allowing them to do so?

No, that’s not happening elsewhere. Each such outcome would require a noteworthy combination of individual inspiration, group perspiration, and community toleration.

These are the characteristics that nurture an Innovation Society. Regrettably, we cannot find them everywhere.

Nevertheless, we can certainly find them in The Hub of Cambridge and Boston.