The Smoot, Himself

By Blythe Copeland | Boston Magazine |

To those who don’t know the story, Ollie Smoot may seem an anonymous sort: retired nonprofit executive, grandfather of two, quietly living with his wife in San Diego. But for scholars of Hub lore, his name ranks in the pantheon of those who have inspired new ways to measure our world, alongside the likes of Fahrenheit and Ampère. And now the 67-year-old MIT alum has been further memorialized in a just-released book, Smoot’s Ear, which takes its title from the October 1958 night when Smoot was used by his fraternity pledge masters as a 5-foot-7 human yardstick to mark the length of the Harvard Bridge. (Total: 364.4 smoots, plus or minus an ear.) Repainted on the bridge each fall, the unconventional units have become considerably more famous than their namesake. “Every once in a while,” he says, “someone visiting from Boston will say, ‘Oh, if we were back home, I’d show you this thing, the smoot!’ And it’s fun to say, ‘I am that thing.’”