Smoots and Potrzebies (Units of Distance)

On August 20, 2009 · 2 Comments

Recently I expressed my fascination with the "I’m Feeling Geeky" option on Google Map’s Great Circle distance calculator. It calculated the distance between Juneau, Alaska and the Canadian border easily enough in about fifty different units of measurement, only two of which were remotely useful, kilometers and miles. However, cubits and leagues, chains and double-paces, rods and furlongs, even American football fields and Olympic swimming pools, were all available for display.

But so were Smoot and Potrzebie. I had at least a passing knowledge of the preponderance of other measures but these two confounded me. Should I have known logically that 1 Smoot equaled 67 Inches or that 1 Potrzebie equaled 2.2633 Millimeters, and thus 1 Smoot equaled 751.910927 Potrzebies?

Did I nod off one day in class back in Middle School when these measures were discussed, resulting in an embarrassing gap of knowledge decades later? Obviously there must have been some legitimacy to them or Google wouldn’t have included them in their calculator. Right? Thank goodness for Wikipedia. The answer is affirmative in a parallel universe where "legitimacy" and "geeky" mean the same thing but these measures become totally superfluous on Planet Reality. What a shame. The world could use more whimsy.


The Smoot owes its name and standard of measurement to one Oliver R. Smoot, a 1958 student and fraternity pledge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His fraternity brothers defined a Smoot to equal his five-foot-seven-inch frame, or 1.7018 meters. Using the human body as a measuring device isn’t that farfetched, and in fact has been rather common throughout history.

The students proceeded to take their newly coined unit of measure, literally in the flesh, to the Harvard Bridge at the southern edge of MIT. Here they measured the span across the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston at 364.4 Smoots, plus or minus one ear.

View Larger Map

The tradition lives on more than fifty years later. The Harvard Bridge continues to be marked in ten smoot increments. This is not only tolerated by authorities but is well established and accepted. Markers are refreshed and repainted periodically. One such marker can be seen quite clearly in the Street View image, above.


What is it about university students and bridges, though? I’m aware of a different defacement in another college town.

View Larger Map

This is Beta Bridge in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia. The bridge gets completely repainted several times a week. This Street View image shows how it appeared on a particularly rainy day sometime in the past. No doubt this message has long since been obliterated under multicolored layers but continues to retain a certain longevity at least until the next Street View update. Go Virginia Swimmers! – who have probably already graduated and started their postgraduate careers by now.

Wow, that’s an odd tangent. Sometimes I surprise even myself as I daydream and type.


The Potrzebie is an even more obscure unit of measurement. I have not been able to find any photographic confirmation of its public usage. Nonetheless, Google offers it as a legitimate conversion. One Potrzebie is defined as the thickness of Issue 26 of Mad magazine, or 2.263348517438173216473 millimeters. It was a running gag in the magazine for many years but, unlike the Smoot, does not seem to exist in the wild. Otherwise I would have loved to have provided you with a map.

If this topic interests you as much as it interested me, you might want to check out this page on other whimsical units of measurement or the classic calculation of Furlongs per Fortnight, so you can get your geek on.

On August 20, 2009 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Smoots and Potrzebies (Units of Distance)”

  1. Greg says:

    And don’t forget that the potrzebie was defined by a 19-year-old Donald Knuth (then a student at my alma mater), who would go on to become a computer scientist of knee-shakingly legendary proportions. I’ve heard that he still lists his Mad article on his extremely lengthy list of professional publications. Thanks once again, Mr. 12MC, for another delightfully geeky post (and I mean that in a genuinely good way)!

Comments are closed.

12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
Don't miss an article -
Subscribe to the feed!

RSS G+ Twitter
RSS Twelve Mile Circle Google Plus Twitter
Monthly Archives
Days with Posts
October 2017
« Sep