The Harvard Bridge, Go Figure

The Harvard Bridge is one of the simplest and least adorned bridges over the Charles. It looks plain when compared to the Longfellow Bridge, which has the prows of Viking ships decorating its base, or the Anderson Bridge, with its entrance piers decorated with armor and mantling. The Harvard Bridge seems so anonymous that it is often called the wrong name and referred to as the MIT Bridge or the Mass. Ave Bridge. But the Harvard Bridge is great and its history is there for everyone to see, if they just look.

For one thing, the bridge is a lot older than one might guess. It was built in 1891, long before MIT moved to Cambridge and well before the land MIT sits on was reclaimed from the river through land fill. When the bridge was built, Cambridge and Boston were still highly industrialized and the Charles was an active shipping lane, so the bridge originally had a swing span section in the middle to allow large ships to pass through it.

Another thing that makes the Harvard Bridge cooler than you thought is that Houdini jumped off it, in chains. Houdini, in an effort to continue to outdo himself, shifted from escaping from handcuffs and chains onstage to escaping from jail cells to eventually staging dramatic escapes from perilous situations. One of his early dramatic public displays was in 1908 and involved jumping from the Harvard Bridge in manacles. To this day there is a plaque dedicating the bridge to the master of escape.

Many people know that the Harvard Bridge created new unit of measurement, the Smoot. In 1958 the bridge was measured in Smoots, by laying Oliver Smoot (MIT class of 1962) down and marking where he laid then picking him up and moving him one Smoot further down the bridge. (For the record, the Bridge is 364.4 Smoots long.) But did you know that the Smoot in question went on to regulate American measurements? Oliver Smoot went on to head the American National Standards Institute and later the International Organization for Standardization.