Brass Rat

The Brass Rat is the MIT undergraduate ring. There is now a graduate ring which is similar but a bit "off" - as a curmudgeon might say, much like the graduate school itself. I suppose the Grad Rat counts as a Brass Rat as well. It looks like the Grad Rat was introduced circa 2003.

The Brass Rat has to be the ugliest school ring ever. The depicted Rat is actually the school mascot, a beaver. That rodent was chosen as he's the champion builder of the animal kingdom. If you don't count the hive insects, of course. Or some birds. Or the trapdoor spider. Or corals. Et cetera.

MIT undergrads have the same ring regardless of school (School of Science, School of Engineering, etc) or department. However, the ring varies slightly from year to year. There are also some minor options, depending largely on which company is the supplier for that class year.

Now one might think that an MIT ring would be made of something unusual and frightfully technical - forged titanium, perhaps. Maybe depleted uranium. Boron fiber composite. Single crystal silicon. Whatever. And there should be some functionality built in. Even those plastic rings they used to put in cereal boxes might have things like a whistle, a compass, or - best of all - a secret decoder. But no, the Rat is just a lump of gold. Brass Rats might be in 10, 14, or 18 caret gold, or sometimes white gold or silver. There's a hefty price difference, naturally, between the different caret weights, but what is more likely to sway the typical MIT nerd is that the 10 caret is the strongest of the gold rings, and the least prone to wear. I've seen a few old Rats which have been on fingers for twenty or thirty years, and they grow mighty thin in that time. It really doesn't matter much what the details of the decoration on the sides of the ring were after they've been eroded away.

The details of each class year's design are determined by a Ring Committee, composed of students who get on the committee via no known process. A normal MIT undergraduate is far too busy to both eat and sleep during the term, let alone waste time screwing around with trivial details like what shape of sticks the beaver should be depicted chewing on. So the students determining the morphology of the ring are atypical. The rumor is that the committee members wrangle free rings out of the deal. Considering that all the ring vendors offer an approximately equivalent product, the pressure - and opportunities! - must be considerable, and there may be more goodies involved than a mere free ring.

After graduating the ring is worn differently. Disappointingly, there are no schoolwide rituals involving animal parts or celestial alignments - the ring is simply reversed, so that a graduate in repose sees the beaver upside-down. There is a mnemonic for remembering which way the beaver faces. I won't repeat it, as it's something that only a college-age kid would think is funny.

Personally, I was always disappointed that the MIT ring didn't have a stone, like a typical school ring. And what would be the appropriate stone? A grindstone, of course - with the beaver's nose pressed up against it.

But on to Rats of the Past.

Class of 1977
I was in a dorm with a bunch of '76ers. When the Balfour guys came around to take orders for '76 rings, they made quite a production of it. They camped out in the lobby of Building 10 for what seemed like weeks, with display cases and mountains of brochures, and if whilst traversing the Endless Corridor I'd stumbled into a Balfour bevy of dancing girls and a bear trained to juggle knives with burning handles, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. The offerings were lavish, even a bit confusing. There were several sizes, which was puzzling until we realized that the sizes were of the big rectangle circumscribed about the beaver, and not the size of the ring itself. There was silver, and white gold, and regular gold, but in light, medium, and dark, which seemed extravagant. There was also green gold, which we thought might be a pre-tarnished look, to make up for the fact that the gold wouldn't tarnish on its own. There were options for the buyer's name - block letters, script, or initials, I think - maybe even a genuine signature. The most frivolous of the options was a diamond chip for the beaver's eye. I never ran into anyone who would admit to getting that. I seem to recall the basic price being about $79.00 - remember, this was a while ago, when an HP-45 calculator cost $400.00 at the Coop. Sic transit...

The next year - my year - the contract went to Jostens. Jostens wasn't so big on showmanship, it seems, as the rep was in and out again in a day or two. I completely missed him, sneaking in like that between 18.075 problem sets. I didn't get a ring until some fifteen years later. The options weren't so lavish as with Balfour. I think small, medium, and large sizes were available, and a strange "antique" finish instead of that weird green gold. And I vaguely recall that the price was up to something around $500.

There were some design changes from '76, but in those days they were trivial. They boiled down to - Weighty considerations, indeed.

Everyone always seems inordinately impressed that MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY is visible in near-microscope letters on the Building 10 architrave. Or maybe it was on the frieze. Wherever it is, back then, some of us could read it unassisted.

Another oddity is that on one side of the ring, the Dome bears the date LXXVII - the class year. The other side has the date MCMXVI, which was the year MIT moved from Boston to the new buildings in Cambridge.

The really radical innovation was that the class year was spelled out in the sticks on which the beaver is chewing. I don't think this strange custom dates back to earlier rings - 77 is a natural if there ever was one. The Ring Committee was so pleased with itself that they made 77s of some of the sticks the beaver is standing on, as well. It's enough to make one suspect that they were all Architecture majors.

When I finally got around to buying my ring, the price had risen to $500 (although to be sure, $500 which I had then was certainly better than the $100 or so I didn't have fifteen years earlier). And for some strange reason it was only available in "antique" finish. I may have that name wrong. Anyway, it seemed to be a lacquer applied, none too neatly, to the low points of the design. I didn't like it much, so I put the ring in a beaker of acetone and stirred it up a bit in an ultrasonic cleaner. So now it's just plain old gold.

My ring ended up a bit too tight, which I suppose is better than being too loose, as this is a heavy sucker and will fall off if given the chance. I just have to be sure there are no witnesses when I take it off, as the procedure is a bit primitive. You'd think an MIT ring would have something like a rack & pinion adjustment for that.

William Whitelaw '77

Class of 1986

Class of 2004


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