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Standards, bridges, Max Am Ende and the Smoot

31 May 2012 No Comment

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If you type into Google or Google Earth “1 smoot in meters” you’ll be able to work out that 1 nanosmoot (nSm) is around 1.7nm, but more of that later….

If you take a look at the one of the first British standards (as I have done….I even have a copy….sad case that I am…), you’ll find a couple of really interesting things.

Interesting to me, that is… And it’s all about bridges – not Lloyd…

“Properties of British Standard Sections” was published in July 1904 and then cost the princely sum of 5 shillings (for US audiences and those born after 1970 in the UK: there was a time when there were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in the British pound). This was when the average weekly wage was less than 3 times that (supposedly 14 shillings 11½ pence for agricultural workers). So you’d work 2 days to buy a copy (6 days in the working week!). The document was written by “The Engineering Standards Committee” which had commenced work in 1901:










It is stated that, at the time, it led to the reduction in the number of structural steel sections in common use from 175 to 113. The numbers of tramway rails were slashed from 75 to 5. This led to economies in production costs of something like £1 million per year. It also greatly reduced steel merchants’ costs by cutting down the varieties they had to stock.

If you look carefully at the names of the Committee then you’ll see a certain “Max Am Ende Esq.” who also gets a mention in the Introduction: “All the formulae upon which the calculations for the properties of the Standard Sections were made, were drawn up by Mr. Max Am Ende, of the Calculation Committee”. Here’s one of those drawings:










Now, in the days of Googling, one can’t resist a name like that, but it’s remarkable how little one can find out about this individual. We can find out that he was a bridge engineer who had a bridge design (1889) for the Hudson River (where the George Washington Bridge is now). It was an arch design and featured a 2,850-foot-long main span, two 795-foot-long side spans, two 705-foot-long flanking spans, and a clearance of 150 feet. He also designed a bridge in Praha (Prague):









He had patents to his name – specifically a 2-page one (US 728689 May 19, 1903), a fastening device for wire ropes where he states himself to be a “Subject of the German Emperor residing at 18 Abingdon Street, Westminster, in the County of London, England”. And I assume it was Max that was living there and not the German Emperor – an example of US Patent office wrecking of the English language.

Also I suspect it is the address of the patent lawyers or ‘Parliamentary Agents’. The address would have been within sight of Westminster Bridge! However, only four houses in Abingdon Street survived the bombing of the 2nd World War, so we have few photographs of that area at that time. Max also had a design for the Firth of Forth Bridge in 1880. He wrote at least 2 books, it appears – “The North Sea and Baltic Canal” (1895) and “Long Span Bridges” (1905) But try and find out when and where he was born and died and all information seems to cease. He may have been killed in the First World War is perhaps the only other possible information that can be found… Max Am Ende comes to an end here…

We must therefore leap forward to 1958 and another famous bridge – the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River in Boston and a hazing (initiation to English readers) ceremony to be endured by Oliver Reed Smoot the shortest initiate (5’ 7”) of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). We’re probably all aware of English Kings and units of measurement such as the ‘foot’.

Now Smoot does not rhyme with foot, but it became a celebrated unit when the fraternity decided to measure the length of Charles Bridge in ‘Smoots’. To implement his use as a measuring unit, Oliver Smoot repeatedly lay down on the bridge, let his companions mark his new position in chalk or paint, and then got up again. Eventually, he tired from all this exercise and was carried thereafter by the fraternity brothers to each new position. Ollie was upended 364 times and the bridge length deemed to be “364.4 Smoots +/- an ear.” Calibration steps:

















“Courtesy of the MIT Museum”

When the bridge was rebuilt in the late 1980’s the Smoot calibrations were repainted.
Ollie went on to be Chairman of ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and in 2003 President of ISO.

The titanium plaque







Some pictures and the book “Smoot’s Ear” by Robert Tavernor which tells more of the story and talks about the science of measurement.

By the way I’m LinkedIn to Ollie…..

All photographs courtesy of MIT Museum



So bridges span standards and the years…..