EV 1470 – Big Dave's Crossword Blog
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EV 1470

Enigmatic Variations 1470

Level Crossing by Hedge-sparrow

Setter’s Blog


An inscription on HARVARD BRIDGE gives its length as 364.4 SMOOTS +/- one EAR; six answers had EAR added or removed before entry.


I first began attempting barred thematic crosswords around the time our son was born 23 years ago. I can’t really remember what made me first try to solve one (though I’d always enjoyed solving normal “blocked” crossword puzzles), and it was some time before I actually managed to complete one, but they certainly helped to pass the time during many sleepless nights, and similarly a couple of years after that when our daughter appeared on the scene! However, it wasn’t until about ten years later that I first had a go at setting a puzzle of my own. My first attempt didn’t quite pass muster, but the next was accepted for publication as a Listener in 2008 (and a great thrill it was), and I’ve been setting regularly ever since – first for the Listener in the Times, and then gradually also for some of the other well-known publications.

Being a physicist, my first few puzzles were on scientific themes, and initially I had an idea that I’d perhaps try to continue that as a sort of “Hedge-sparrow hallmark”. It didn’t quite turn out that way, and I soon found myself setting puzzles on a wide range of interests, often using themes from the world of nature, but also including puzzles based on more “specialist” areas of interest, from church bell-ringing to chilli peppers! Nevertheless, from time to time I’ve returned to my physics roots for inspiration, and Level Crossing is actually an example of that, though not so obviously as some.

I first came across the story of Mr Oliver R. Smoot a couple of years ago in an article in “Physics World” magazine. I think possibly the article was published partly as a sort of antidote to all the stuff to do with the then forthcoming redefinition of SI units that was getting some physicists very excited (though I myself rather liked the old platinum-iridium cylinder as the standard for mass – see the current Chambers entry for “kilogram”). I thought it was a nice story and that it could be a good subject for a fairly light-hearted puzzle, especially as “Harvard Bridge”, the scene of the action, is blessed with 13 letters, a handy length for a thematic puzzle entry in a 13×13 grid (I find I’m always analysing the names of things in terms of their suitability for a symmetrical crossword grid).

In brief, the story is as follows. In the autumn of 1958, Oliver Smoot was a first-year student at MIT in Cambridge, USA. He hoped to be admitted to a college fraternity called the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, but in order to do so, had to complete a stunt allotted to him by the group’s “pledge-master”. The task given to Smoot was to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge, which spans the Charles River and connects Cambridge with Boston, and to measure it in “Smoots” – one Smoot being Oliver Smoot’s height, 5′ 7″, or ~ 1.70 m.

Assisted by his college friends, Smoot repeatedly lay down, his feet touching the point where his head had previously been, whilst his friends marked his progress with chalk and painted “Smoot marks” on the bridge (which still exist, even though the bridge has been rebuilt). The bridge was eventually measured to be of length “364.4 Smoots plus or minus one ear”. The stunt became famous, and at a college reunion in 2008, the plaque shown below was installed in commemoration.

Plaque Commemorating Oliver Smoot’s Measurement of Harvard Bridge in 1958

Author: Beyond My Ken Licence: Creative Commons 4.0 International

Smoot’s stunt was predictive of his later achievements. In 2001, he was appointed chair of the American National Standards Institute, and two years later became the president of the International Organization for Standardization.

How to turn all this into a crossword puzzle? As mentioned above, I’d already noted the fact that Harvard Bridge has 13 letters. Experimenting a little with the form of the measurement as originally painted on the bridge by Smoot’s friends, and as indicated in the commemorative plaque (364.4 Smoots +/- 1 ear), I saw that – with a little judicious “editing” (i.e. omitting the forward slash ) – the main part of the measurement as stated (up to the minus sign) could also fit, with one element per cell, in a row of 13 cells, leaving the “1 ear” part to be accounted for. I could also have maintained grid symmetry by using just the eleven individual elements of “364.4 Smoots”, leaving the “+/- 1 ear” part outstanding: as I think about it again now, maybe that would have been a “neater” option (i.e. maintaining the link of the “+/-” more directly with the “1 ear” part), but anyway, as it was, I decided to stick with the first option.

My first attempts to construct a grid had the phrase “364.4 Smoots + -” in the row immediately above the one containing “Harvard Bridge”, emulating Oliver Smoot’s laying down on the bridge to make the measurement. However, because I wanted to use down entries to yield the numbers, decimal point, and plus and minus signs, this layout proved to be too restrictive, and instead I had to separate the two phrases as in the published puzzle, with the measured length in the central row of a 13×13 grid, and “Harvard Bridge” up in the second row (though again in hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to have Harvard Bridge in the lower half of the grid).

My original idea was to use the clues themselves to complete the +/- 1 ear part of the theme, by having the word “ear” added to or removed from a number of clues. Then I thought it might be a better idea to make this a feature of some entries in the grid, requiring solvers either to add or subtract “ear” in those entries. This proved to be trickier to implement than I initially thought it would be: the down entries yielding the numbers and other symbols were quite restrictive in terms of the grid construction, and in the end I only managed to include three of each type of “ear adjustment”. Nevertheless, as I wanted this to be a relatively straightforward and light-hearted sort of puzzle, I thought that that was probably acceptable: for the same reason I decided also to leave the clues as “normal”, rather than introduce any further gimmick, which made the task of cluing a little easier than it sometimes is.

For me, usually the last part of constructing a puzzle (and sometimes the hardest!) is coming up with a suitable title – one that is relevant, and perhaps might raise a chuckle when its relevance becomes clear, but which doesn’t give the game away too easily. In this case, it was a bit easier than normal: the stunt itself suggested Level Crossing as a likely title, and the theme was likely to be so little known that no-one would guess to what the title actually referred.

So that was about it. Steve Bartlett kindly agreed to publish the puzzle (with a few additional tweaks here and there) in the EV series, and thus Oliver Smoot’s achievement has become known to millions!

The word “Smoot” in this context has not (yet) made it into our dictionaries, and I was also aware as I constructed the puzzle that it was a theme that most, if not all, solvers would not have come across before, so that recourse to the internet (at least to check the thematic parts of solutions) would be necessary. Whilst most solvers these days have internet access and are happy to use it to help with solving or checking solutions to puzzles, the internet is not universally popular as a solving / checking aid, and particularly so in a case such as this where checking the theme can’t easily be done in any other way. So I hope those solvers who dislike using the internet will forgive me on this occasion, and that they may nevertheless have enjoyed reading about Mr Smoot’s exploits.

As always, many thanks to Steve and Chris, the EV editors, for their efforts in helping to get the puzzle ready for publication, and also to the solvers who have already sent me kind comments about Level Crossing – they’re very much appreciated.


A full review of this puzzle can be seen over on fifteensquared.


2 comments on “EV 1470
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  1. It’s always interesting to read about the inception and development of a theme, especially to be told of “might have beens” arising during construction. And I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one whose immediate thought on encountering a likely word or phrase is to calculate its length! You must have been pleased to note that the phrase could be likewise accommodated. An enjoyable – and educational – puzzle. Many thanks.

  2. Loved it.
    Thankfully, I have no qualms about using the Internet when it comes to these thematic puzzles (I’m not as knowledgeable as I pretend to be), so I really enjoyed researching and learning about the “smoot.”
    Thanks for giving us a peek at your process!

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