The Measuring of Harvard Bridge in Smoot-Lengths

Here are the facts in brief:

In the fall of 1951, the pledges of TDX were sent out by their upper-class mentors to perform an honored annual ceremony:   measuring the Harvard Bridge in Judge Lowell lengths (the persona of the Judge being represented variously by an eel or a fish).    The pledges, taken by the spirit of the tradition, were inspired to embellish:  they substituted one of their own, Perry Raeburn Smoot, for Judge Lowell as the unit of mensuration.

But this method was flawed and the bridge ended up being only partially measured.  The problem was that in spite of the cold, Perry would bend when lifted by his belt.  This seriously diminished accuracy.  Supporting chords about the neck and ankles were considered, but rejected as offering no net improvement, inasmuch as there would be shuddering pursuant to strangulation.  The effort therefore was, alas, abandoned.

But the ingeniousness of the concept, coupled with the old and honorable Smoot family name, resonated around campus - as it does even yet today.  The notion was thus in a viable state of incubation when Lambda Chi Alpha serendipitously came up with its very own Smoot pledge (Oliver Smoot, '62).   Lambda Chi evidently saw their opportunity:  they’d do a remake of the enterprise, this time going for the Full Monte.  Perhaps they chose a colder night, because they were successful, and the rest is history:  their Oliver Smoot mensuration deservedly achieved eternal fame.  But we ’51 Theta Delts may modestly claim credit for having invented and inspired this signal accomplishment.

Below is the flurry of testimony which flew about when the question was first raised, shortly before the Phoenix reunion, of which Smoot was the real standard of Harvard Bridge measurement:


When the matter of which Smoot first came up in a debate between my son (MIT '81), and me,  I floated the question to the mailing list of reunees.  Many responded that they "know" we did it - but at first, no one’s knowledge seemed to stem from a clear, first-hand recollection.  Alarmingly, one of the doubters was our own Perry Raeburn Smoot himself.   Yet also tellingly, all those who did report recalling the event, had left MIT well before the competing, and documented, 1958 bridge measurement by use of one Oliver R. Smoot Jr., Lambda Chi Alpha.

So…..  whence came all our memories of Smoot mensuration?

It was well established that we did annually measure the Harvard Bridge in eel lengths, and indeed did so in the Fall of 1951.  Inasmuch as our Smoot would have been a dink-participant in that exercise, it was plausible that there were some hijinks during the process wherein he might well have been substituted for the eel for a number of lengths.

Anyhow, here’s the record of the testimony that accrued during our investigation to establish the truth of the matter.

Jack Cronin:
I remember hearing about the measurement, but as an event prior to Sept. '52.  I also remember looking for a Canon/cannon report, a Wolfe/wolf net, "how much does a sub way/weigh?" and "Is it colder in winter or in New York".  I also remember Hoffenstoffensteimerheimerkreunerleuterbecker.

Bill Rice:
It was not our own beloved Smoot, but another Smoot from a different fraternity.  So the whippersnapper and Perry are both correct in their recollection.  
The measurements we did were with an eel, which I purchased from the Boston fish market.  We measured X eel lengths going from Cambridge to Boston, then measured X minus Y eel lengths on the return.  The difference was due to the eel stretching because of all the handling, thus requiring fewer lengths on the return. We then told the Dinks that they could not even keep decent records, and threatened to repeat the process a third time (which did not happen)!
 As best I can recall, the eel measurement took place around 1951 (I was class of 1953).  Joan and I were married in May of 1952 and I doubt that I would have been interested in any subsequent Dink activities.  To add to the story, I bought the eel frozen and we put it in the furnace room at 314 Memorial Drive to thaw.  When it did thaw, the basement acquired a very pungent smell.  Why anyone would want to eat eels is beyond me!

Bill Deibel
I can't recall if it was mentioned already in this regard, but the name of the dead eel was "Judge Lowell."

Gene Bloch:
In early 1954, when the Class of 57 was "it" I remember the Smoot being bandied about as a unit of measure for the Harvard Bridge. I had just learned what a unit of measure was and gained an even greater respect for Perry, who I assumed had invented it.
I also remember Yeeeoweeflickbotpawlthawkthalzipthe. However, I have managed to block out the rest of my MIT education.

Phil James:
I had the same recollection as you, but could never place the actual event in my memory.  With the MIT news story, I see that it happened in 1958, while I was at UC Berkeley.  (In fact, one night we had the Marlows, Deibels, and can't recall who else at our great apartment in Berkeley, so perhaps that was where I heard of it.)
In any case, since I don't recall Perry doing it, and since Perry doesn't recall doing it, it's probably correct that he didn't do it.
But I have no recollection of Bill Rice's story either.  Is that because Bill was Class of '52 and pulled it on Class of '53, before I got there?

Brandon Leroy Rigney:
On Smoots: I, like you, labored under delusion for many years that it was our own version laid down in history. However, in the various postings and documentation of various pranks, hoaxes, and tricks by undergrad's, the REAL SMOOT dimension is attributed to some other dink-like person.  Rice's reminder of measuring with an eel strikes a memory chord (maybe we can revise history and re-name the eel "Smoot").  Damn whipper-snappers and their dubious respect for us old farts!

Bill Deibel:

They were "Smoots" when we did it!   

Bob Boole:
I recall reading  (on several occasions) in sundry MIT  publications about  one Oliver Smoot class of  (early 60s) as the standard of measure for the bridge.

I know for sure that Perry was not used thru 1952.

Bill Ross:
Sorry, no recollection of the event taking place during my tenure (55-59).  I do remember my Dad, Herb Ross 32, (an occasional visitor and story teller at 314 Memorial Dr), talking with great glee about the measurement process done in his day using alewife fish lengths.  Regards,  Bill Ross '59

Perry Raeburn Smoot:
In conversation at the Hill's in Phoenix, Perry himself said he had no recollection of this mensuration having happened.  Possibly though, he’d expunged the trauma, since he also had no memory of the now well-established eel-length mensuration of 1951, accomplished by the dink class of ’54 of which Perry was a member.

Ralph Cuomo:
Sounds like there were some year-to-year variations. For my class, the eel was 'presented' (uncooked, of course) for lunch. Since this was the era of pre-sushi, it was considered inedible food (doubtful it was sushi quality, anyway), and we didn't have to eat it. I can still see it coiled on a platter of lettuce, thanks to Frank the chef.

Judge Lowell was a separate large fish, species unknown, that we used for measuring distance from the kitchen back door to the crypt - not as challenging as measuring the length of the Harvard bridge. Later in the evening, one of the upperclassmen reported that Judge Lowell 'died', and since it was noted he had been in the Navy, he was given a 'burial at sea'.  The pallbearers carried him in a box across Memorial Drive, the mourners sang 'Poor Judge is dead', and the box slid over several paddles, to land with a thud on the frozen Charles. The box remained there (with Judge Lowell inside) until the river thawed in the spring.

Dick Neergaard
Judge Lowell was a large fish, species unknown, that we used to measure the distance from the kitchen back door to the crypt.

Judge Lowell, sometimes fish, sometimes eel, unquestionably factual, always a standard of length, may be a Red Herring!   Although quite possibly the Smoot mensuration, recalled with widely varying levels of clarity by so many, was associated with and even inspired by the activities involving Judge Lowell, assuredly the two events were distinct from one another.  

A vague image of our Perry-grination of Mensuration has started to resuscitate itself in what I laughingly refer to as my mind:   specifically, our consternation at assuring accuracy.  The problem was that whenever we lifted Perry by his belt to move him, he would tend to bend double, surprising in view of the cold.  I seem to remember that this in fact stopped us short of doing the entire bridge.  We considered adding ropes around ankles and neck, but worried that Perry would then tend to strangle, with the consequent shuddering again dashing our hopes for accuracy.

A much clearer recollection of traversing the Harvard Bridge for reasons other than to get to the other side, is that of our pushing a piano across it one night (why?), with Gene Bloch tickling the ivories quite prettily the entire way.

Tom Marlow:
In conversation at the Hill's in Phoenix, Tom said he seemed to recall the incident, but as a floating memory, uncertain as to whether experienced or merely heard as lore.   

Bob Reichard:
I didn't "copy all" but willingly put in my vote.   I honestly recall about half a dozen bro's lifting and shifting a cooperative (as expected) Perry Smoot at the last 1/3 of the Harvard bridge.   It was a cold, dark night but not windy.

I've read enough tomes about reconstructed memory to be dubious about many such, but this one is firmly in mind.   Now I'll have to read the zillion other responses!

Dick Neergaard:

He who is to be trusted above all and believed without question has weighed in.  Bob Reichard confirms it DID HAPPEN!  And pretty much as my slowly re-forming memory had started to picture it.  We indeed launched a quixotic Perrygrination into taking Judge Lowell to the next level which, though inspired, alas, went incomplete.  It was a bridge-measuring-device too far.  

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