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Hacking Harvard Bridge with Oliver R. Smoot | Magazine | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


The word on the street is Harvard students don’t play around, and not in a good way. Some have taken to The Crimson to express that our student body lacks a penchant for the plot, any desire for debauchery. As first-years, we observed last year that April 1 comes and goes like it’s nothing more than April 2 — or worse, April 3. In other words, the Harvard student body seems to have come down with a serious case of The Seriousness. Why does no one do silly little bits anymore?

But paddle down the Charles River, and things seemingly couldn’t be more different. MIT has a long history of “hacking,” where students carry out intricate, eye-catching practical jokes to demonstrate their cleverness and technical skills.

There’s one hack that rules them all — a prank carried out in October 1958, by then-freshman Oliver R. Smoot and his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers.

The men of Lambda Chi Alpha hatched a plan to measure the Harvard Bridge, which stretches across the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston, without mainstream units of measurement. The unit they decided on? Smoot himself.

As a pledge, the fraternity made Smoot lay down on the bridge over 300 times, painting ticks at each smoot. Almost 70 years later, the Smoot markings remain, allowing pedestrians to measure their journey in “smoots.” According to a sign on the bridge, Cambridge and Boston are exactly 364.4 smoots apart.

On a Zoom meeting, Smoot, 83, is wearing an Under Armour polo shirt, the color of which might best be described as “middle school boy Nike Pro orange.” Despite this, he does not exactly exude the jumping-to-slap-the-tops-of-door-frames energy of said pre-teens or of the stereotypical frat bro. Bespectacled, soft spoken, and slightly shy, he bears a comforting resemblance to Toby Turtle of the 1973 “Robin Hood” film.

Smoot recounts to us a simple explanation as to why he was Lambda Chi Alpha’s choice of measurement. “I was the shortest,” he says. The fraternity decided that using him as a ruler would be the most work for the 14 pledges who had yet to prove themselves worthy of the (Lambda Chi) Alphas. Armed with paint, string, and brushes, the 5’7” Smoot and six other pledges snuck onto Harvard Bridge in the dead of night to measure it in smoots.

Halfway through, Smoot explains, a police car drove past, drawn by the sight of college students “doing something suspicious.” He and his frat brothers fled back to MIT and hid in the bushes near campus. Once the cops gave up, they returned to the bridge.

“I lay down and, with some chalk, they marked my head, then I got up,” says Smoot. “We did 10, and then 20…”

Eventually Smoot couldn’t get up anymore. “They started carrying me,” he recalls. “It’s all a blur.”

***

Smoot didn’t know it then, but his night on the Harvard Bridge was the beginning of a lifetime full of measurement. After graduating from MIT in 1962, he went on to head the National Institute of Standards and Technology, then the International Organization of Standardization — the groups that set standard lengths for use in manufacturing and research.

When he retired, Smoot began to work as an expert witness, testifying about standardization in trials and even before Congress. Smoot says working as an expert witness is economically “very attractive,” but he was ultimately overwhelmed by the thousands of documents he was asked to read and the experience of opposition attorneys “taking you apart” in the courtroom.

“I decided that the money you made was not worth the trauma you experienced when you have to go through the deposition,” Smoot explains. He retired as a witness and moved to San Diego to be close to his grandchildren.

Almost 70 years after his hack, Smoot is still the same Smoot, assuring us he’s still 1 smoot tall. Though his Wikipedia page lists Smoot as 0.9813139 smoot, his doctors say otherwise.

“They do the height and it’s still 5’7”. Now, I admit I stand up as tall as I can,” he says sheepishly. “Because I don’t want to start shrinking.”

***

Smoot’s prank continues to inspire students, who’ve kept the longstanding tradition of MIT hacks going. In 1982, MIT students hoisted a junked police car on top of the school’s famous Great Dome. Three decades later, hackers installed remote-controlled light strips inside the windows of MIT’s 295-foot tall Green Building, which they lit up and used to play Tetris.

Some hacks are even aimed at Harvard. In 1982, MIT students planted an eight-foot black weather balloon stamped with “MIT” under the field before the Harvard-Yale football game, which they remotely set off halfway through the match. The balloon exploded into a cloud of smoky white powder, shocking the nearby players and referees.

Harvard has never hacked MIT back, but Smoot thinks it’s possible. To him, Harvard students could benefit from the hack culture.

“There’s a lot of tension going on,” he says. “Doing hacks in a way where their quirkiness is appreciated is what’s important, I think.”

His advice is this: “Get a group together who actually want to do something that’s odd and fun,” he says. “I think there are enough inventive people at Harvard to figure this out.”

— Magazine writer Olivia G. Pasquerella can be reached at olivia.pasquerella@thecrimson.com

— Associate Magazine Editor Adelaide E. Parker can be reached at adelaide.parker@thecrimson.com.

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