Rhymes With Fuchsia

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Measure of Man

When Stephanie posted yesterday that she intended to walk 7 kilometers to the nearest store for beer and toilet paper, and then (inevitably) 7 kilometers back to her hermitage, the thought did cross my mind, "7 kilometers? that's... um... about 4 miles. She must be in way better shape than I am." And she undoubtedly is, but after reading her post today, I felt a bit less inferior. I also felt like knowing exactly how far 7 kilometers is, anyway (I know that if you're a scientist and/or living outside the US, you are thinking, "it's 7 kilometers, dummy" — sorry, but I still think in miles: deal with it), and I consulted this handy conversion tool. A kilometer is approximately .621 statute mile, or just about 5/8 mile, and 7 kilometers is about 4.35 miles, or 1 megaparsec, depending on whether you're sitting at your computer playing with length conversions or walking down a frozen road in the middle of nowhere.

Since I, as a sensible way-out-of-shape person, was engaged in the former activity, I noticed that this conversion tool had a ton of different measurements to choose from. In addition to your basic statute mile, for example, you can convert to or from the ancient British mile (.9997 statute mile), Irish mile (1.273), international nautical mile (1.15), ancient Roman mile (.944), and so on. At that point I began to wonder about the smoot, and, sure enough, it's in the list.

If you live in the Boston area, especially if you work with engineers, I probably don't have to tell you what a smoot is. For the benefit of the rest of the world, in October 1958 an MIT freshman named Oliver Smoot was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the Mass. Ave. Bridge spanning the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston. The smoot marks, repainted each year by MIT students, have become enshrined in local lore and in the hearts of the Cambridge police, who use them to specify the location of accidents.

More fun smoot facts:
  • The official length of a smoot is 5 feet, 7 inches. (That's US/international feet and inches. It turns out that there are various flavors of feet as well as miles.)
  • I once worked on a project whose British-American chief engineer was so taken with the smoot that he made the software use it as the standard internal measurement to and from which all more commonplace measurements such as centimeters and inches were converted.
  • The Robert B. Parker novel Early Autumn sets a confrontation on the bridge, so that Spenser, the first-person protagonist, can briefly explain the smoot and then say, a few paragraphs later, "There was another gunshot from five smoots away."
  • Oliver Smoot is a former Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
That last fact, which I got from this Wikipedia article, makes me giggle. Should you for some reason be not yet sated with smootiana, read the article.

Spring watch: still nothing.

But I live in hope.


  • If you like Smoots, you may enjoy some of the other hacks (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/1999/hacks-0901.html) at MIT -- http://hacks.mit.edu/Hacks/

    By Blogger Danielle, at 7:05 AM  

  • It is soo good to see smoots immortalized in blogland. When they rebuilt the bridge, they preserved the smoot measures. Or so I am told.

    By Blogger Laurie, at 7:39 AM  

  • the smoot tackmarks are still there. and i'm 1 smoot tall

    By Blogger maryse, at 7:49 AM  

  • Megaparsec! Smoots! Highly entertaining post. BTW, I saw Danielle working on the reversible cable scarf you designed. Eeeets GORgeous.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:50 AM  

  • Would this measure be as funny if his name was Wilson or Black? Something about the word, "smoot," makes me want to smile.

    I can walk four miles if I have to, but I try not to have to.

    By Blogger Roxie, at 9:34 AM  

  • Smootronics sounds very interesting. Thanks for the lesson!

    By Blogger Carol, at 1:27 PM  

  • I knew all about smoots, except for his being involved in those standards organizations.

    By Blogger Kim, at 3:41 PM  

  • Loved reading about the smoots. Since I live in the area I already knew about them, but it is so fun to read it all again. When we participate in the Walk for Hunger (or, as I believe it should be called, the Walk Against Hunger) it is always fun to have that little extra giggle near the end when we are crossing the Mass Ave bridge.

    My favorite "units" story has to do with the first Star Wars movie, where Han Solo says he went from A to B in some number of parsecs (which of course are distance and not time). Guess the person in charge of editing out that sort of error must have had the day off when they filmed that.

    Knit on, using your chosen unit of measurement!

    By Blogger Karen, at 4:04 PM  

  • So did you see that Mel (in MAINE, though south of me...) has irises flowering in his yard? I've been wondering about the origin of a mile.... what distance did it originally measure? Was it 1/1000 of the distance between London and Rome? Have I asked you this already? Do I care enough to do some googling? Not now, ready for bed!

    By Blogger knitnzu, at 7:45 PM  

  • Maryse beat me to telling everyone my height in snoots. She is taller than I am too - at a smoot less two inches.

    Happy knitting,
    janeyknitting AT yahoo DOT ca

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:34 AM  

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