MIT's Great Dome and professors aren't the only victims of famous hacks. Hackers like to fool around with measurement every now and then, too. Here's the tale of the legendary "Smoot," excerpted from Nightwork:
The greatest measurement hack of all time is indisputably the Smoot –named for Oliver Smoot, the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity pledge used to recalculate the length of the Harvard Bridge in 1958. It seems that Lambda Chi fraternity brother Tom O’Connor got it into his head to give his new pledges a chance to do public service. He figured that in making the long trek across the bridge from Boston, where the fraternity was located, some indicator of progress would be helpful when frat brothers held their heads down against the rain, sleet, snow, and gale force winds they sometimes encountered en route.
Smoot, at just under 5’7” was the shortest pledge among the freshman at hand and was thus elected to be the human yardstick. Using swimming-pool paint on the bridge sidewalk, the pledges marked every Smoot with a colorful tick mark and at every 10 Smoots spelled out the full measurement. Eventually, they reached the end of the bridge–at 364.4 Smoots, plus or minus one ear.
Every two years, Lambda Chi pledges repaint the markings, which Cambridge police officers have come to rely on for specifying exact locations when filling out accident reports. After graduating from MIT in 1962, Smoot attended Georgetown University Law School. The man who is perhaps the most famous human-based measure of the twentieth century served as chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). By some serendipitous twist, the progeny of both Smoot and O’Connor enrolled at MIT’s Sloan School of Management forty years later.
The Alumni Association marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Smooting of the bridge in grand style: the City of Cambridge declared October 4 to be Smoot Day and the Institute dedicated a special plaque to commemorate the occasion. The MIT students who designed the plaque also created a Smoot stick, a permanent tool that will serve as the standard Smoot measure far into the future for MIT students who want to ensure the accuracy of the length of the Harvard Bridge.