World Metrology Day: Celebrating Unusual Measurements

by Richard Law on May 18, 2018 From News And Comment

At Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, we take measurement very seriously. As well as ensuring safety, accuracy, and reliability in countless areas of peoples’ lives, metrology forms the foundation of our company heritage. It’s what we continue to build on as we expand our expertise and portfolio to show how quality can drive productivity throughout the various stages of the product lifecycle. For us, every day is metrology day.

As we’ve discussed in a previous blog, the history of metrology gives us cause to celebrate some of humankind’s greatest qualities: exploratory, enterprising, and just a bit eccentric! The theme for this year’s world metrology day is ‘constant evolution of the International System of Units.’ And, as we’ll see in this post, humanity’s intrinsic inclination to measure things has led to some creative – if unusual – fictional units of measurement.

These units might not inspire the next game-changing technology, but on this special day let’s celebrate them for what they are: reminders of peoples’ passion for measurement, which really does permeate every facet of our lives.

The Smoot
What device would you use to measure the length of a bridge? A college undergraduate perhaps…?

The bridge in question is the Harvard Bridge in the U.S, which connects Boston with Massachusetts. In 1958, Tom O’Connor, a student at the local Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and regular crosser of the bridge, decided that the bridge should be marked so walkers could see how far they had progressed on their journey. This aimed to encourage fellow fraternity members as they crossed, often with heads bowed against a storm.

His solution came literally in the form of his fraternity brother Oliver Smoot. One October night, several fraternity members lay Smoot down on the bridge repeatedly, measuring from head to toe and painting permanent marks every 10 ‘smoots’.

Initially, the group intended to calibrate the bridge by measuring off a few lengths of Smoot before measuring what remained with string. However, the entertainment it provided for passers-by led to a change of plan and Smoot worked a long night shift. With Oliver Smoot standing at five feet seven inches, it was labour intensive work measuring the bridge’s 659.82 m length, which the group approximated to be 364.4 smoots ± an ear.

The smoot has become a local legend; the markings remain on the bridge to this day and when new paving was laid down in the 1980s the slabs were divided not in the standard six feet but in lengths of smoot. And
the end of the Harvard bridge didn’t mark the end of Oliver Smoot’s foray into measurement and standard-setting. He became a board member and eventually chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), before spending two years as president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The Sheppey
Douglas Adams is better known for his science fiction series ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ than for his interest in metrology. But in 1983, Adams and television writer John Lloyd made their ‘contribution’ to the field in the form of the Sheppey, a length equal to about 1.4 km (7/8 of a mile). According to their book ‘The Meaning of Liff’, the Sheppey is used to measure the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque. It should be noted that a Sheppey’s accuracy can be impaired by environmental effects such as temperature, rain and cragginess of mountain.

The Helen
In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Her legendary beauty is described in Christopher Marlowe’s play ‘Dr. Faustus’ as “the face that launched 1000 ships.” This refers to the legend that the Greek army sailed to war with the Trojans to win back Helen from Paris, the Trojan Prince. Marlowe’s famous line inspired the Helen, a unit of measurement for beauty.

Various interpretations of the unit have been offered. American artist David Lance Goines developed a ‘Helen Beauty Scale’, and the author of this blog is self-certified as measuring one gigahelen (the equivalent of launching 1 000 000 000 000 Greek warships and destroying the solar system).


Last Metrology Day, we celebrated the signing of the metre convention and the advent of metrology as we know it by asking you for stories about your most peculiar measurement tasks using Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence Solutions. From a millionaire’s speaker system to a pie, the submissions were not only unusual but demonstrated how metrology really does shape our lives.

Revisit the blog to get the full story on these peculiar measurements, and be sure to let the Accelerate! team know if you’ve used Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence products for any unusual measurements.

Happy Metrology Day!

Richard Law

Richard Law is a Global Marketing Copywriter at Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence. He has written numerous articles and blogs across a range of industries. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature with Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Poetry from the University of East Anglia.