The Measuring of Harvard Bridge in
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
chords about the neck and ankles were considered, but rejected as
no net improvement, inasmuch as there would be shuddering pursuant to
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
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
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.
one of the doubters was our own Perry Raeburn Smoot
Yet also tellingly, all those who did report recalling the event, had
MIT well before the competing, and documented, 1958 bridge measurement
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
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.
I remember hearing about the measurement, but as an event
prior to Sept. '52. I also remember looking for a Canon/cannon
Wolfe/wolf net, "how much does a sub way/weigh?" and "Is it colder in
or in New York". I also remember
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
difference was due to the eel stretching because of all the handling,
requiring fewer lengths on the return. We then told the Dinks that they
could not even keep decent records, and threatened to repeat the
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
and I doubt that I would have been interested in any subsequent Dink
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
acquired a very pungent smell. Why anyone would want to eat eels
I can't recall if it was mentioned already in this regard,
but the name of the dead eel was "Judge Lowell."
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.
I had the same recollection as you, but could never place
the actual event in my memory. With the MIT news story, I see
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
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
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
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!
They were "Smoots" when we did it!
I recall reading (on several occasions) in sundry
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.
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.
Bill Ross '59
Perry Raeburn Smoot:
In conversation at the Hill's in Phoenix, Perry himself
he had no recollection of this mensuration having happened.
though, he’d expunged the trauma, since he also had no memory of the
well-established eel-length mensuration of 1951, accomplished by the
class of ’54 of which Perry was a member.
Sounds like there were some year-to-year variations. For my
class, the eel was 'presented' (uncooked, of course) for lunch. Since
the era of pre-sushi, it was considered inedible food (doubtful it was
quality, anyway), and we didn't have to eat it. I can still see it
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
of the upperclassmen reported that Judge Lowell 'died', and since it
noted he had been in the Navy, he was given a 'burial at sea'.
pallbearers carried him in a box across Memorial Drive, the mourners
'Poor Judge is dead', and the box slid over several paddles, to land
a thud on the frozen Charles. The box remained there (with Judge Lowell
until the river thawed in the spring.
Judge Lowell was a large fish, species unknown, that we
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
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
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
the entire way.
In conversation at the Hill's in Phoenix, Tom said he
to recall the incident, but as a floating memory, uncertain as to
experienced or merely heard as lore.
I didn't "copy all" but willingly put in my
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
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
the zillion other responses!
He who is to be trusted above all and believed without question has
weighed in. Bob Reichard confirms it DID HAPPEN! And pretty
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.