Many things have changed about the MIT Brass Rat over the years, yet it remains one of the most recognizable rings in the world—a unifying symbol of solidarity that comes from earning an MIT degree.
The details of its history are sometimes cause for friendly debate. We’ve searched archives and conferred with alums to round up the (mostly) agreed-upon facts that trace its journey, from quiet 1927 debut to the 2020 design that has become a symbol of connection to a geographically dispersed graduating class.
1927: Before this time, MIT had no class ring. The Class of 1927 begins the tradition with a generic design.
1929: The student committee for the first custom MIT ring, officially named the Standard Technology Ring, commences work on a design to be worn by the Class of 1930. They debate whether to feature the Great Dome or the beaver on the bezel. The clever and industrious mascot wins, earning the ring its enduring nickname of “Brass Rat.” Contrary to that moniker, the rings are available only in gold or sterling silver.
1940: In the early years, the rings do not change much, with slight variations based only on who produces the ring. In 1940, the ring committee suggests that the Brass Rat be redesigned—after much discussion and polling, however, the idea is dropped.
1963: The Standard Ring Committee disbands. Class committees, which take responsibility for the ring, remain faithful to the original standard, making only minor alterations in ring design from year to year.
1975: Students begin to break with Brass Rat tradition. As Bill Hecht ’61, SM ’76 (CEO of the MIT Alumni Association from 1980 to 2003) would later recall, “Classes started fussing with the beaver, making it bigger, fatter, more beaver-like; the old one was more rat-like.”
1979: A Brass Rat is temporarily attached to the finger of the John Harvard statue at MIT’s Cambridge neighbor, Harvard University.
1980: The Brass Rat makes its first big screen debut in the movie Stir Crazy, worn by Grossberger (played by MIT alum Erland Philip van Lidth de Jeude ’76).
1984: The first ring premiere event is held to unveil the Class of 1986 design, during the spring of their sophomore year.
1987: Controversy ensues over the Class of 1989 ring design, which reverses decades of precedent by having the beaver facing to the right instead of the left.
1988: Silhouettes of the Boston and Cambridge skylines are added to the side bezels of the ring by the Class of 1990 committee, necessitating a change in the ring’s manufacture from a three-piece mold to a five-piece process. Mindful of the longstanding tradition of rotating the direction of one’s ring upon graduation, the decision is made that the Boston skyline will face students until they graduate, and thereafter they will see the Cambridge skyline, in effect looking back at campus. (Most alums can cite an informal meaning of the ring rotation tradition, though its origin is unclear.) Although the Class of 1991 committee chooses to omit the skylines, a version of them will reappear on the 1992 ring and every year to follow.
1996: Astronaut Kenneth D. Cameron ’78, SM ’79 delivers a talk at the Institute and presents President Charles M. Vest with a paperweight-size version of a Brass Rat that he had taken to the Russian space station Mir.
1999: The tradition of holding a ring delivery event—a formal occasion for sophomores to acquire their Brass Rat—begins with the Class of 2001.
2000: The Class of 2002 alters the official MIT seal for the first time, replacing the traditional figure of the male bearded scholar with a woman, and the blacksmith’s hammer with a picket sign.
2003: A committee is formed to design a “Grad Rat” specifically for MIT students with a graduate degree. Previously, graduate students’ only class ring option was to purchase a generic version of the ring from the Coop and add their degree year to the shank.
2006: A giant Brass Rat is precision-manufactured to fit the barrel of a cannon from Caltech’s Fleming House appropriated in an MIT hack. The Brass Rat is reclaimed before the cannon’s return, and will later go on view in the MIT Museum.
2007: A “hacker’s map” is added to the underside of the Class of 2009 bezel, showing each tunnel and basement connection on the MIT campus. (We're told that a general campus map was first added in 1999, did not appear in 2000, and then was added consistently every year since.)
2008: The Brass Rat appears on the hands of both Tony Stark and Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes in Iron Man.
2016: Stephen Meyer ’64 is reunited with his Brass Rat 50 years after losing it while washing a car on a visit to Alabama.
2016: The Brass Rat makes another blockbuster appearance when it is spotted on the hand of physicist Erin Gilbert in the Ghostbusters reboot.
2020: On Friday, May 29, this year’s graduating class will be the first to turn its rings from locations all over the globe. The Brass Rat will figure into Commencement celebrations held virtually, due to MIT’s campus being closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Learn more about the Class of 2020 Brass Rat.
We know this list is incomplete, but if you have some facts or points in history we missed that you’d like to suggest be added, please comment below.