We’re all familiar with IBM’s nickname “Big Blue.” But for Sailors serving in the Information Systems (IT) rating, that familiar acronym has a very special meaning—at least for those who know a little history of their profession.

The Navy created the Information Systems Technician by merging the existing ratings of Radioman (RM) and Data Processing Technician (DP) in 1998. But if you follow the history of the DP rating, you learn that it was drawn from the Machine Acccountant rating, which was created in 1948 when two Specialist ratings were combined: Punched Card Accounting Machine Operator and Key Punch Operator and supervisor.

And it turns out that those two Specialist ratings had a very unique forebear.

In 1939, International Business Machines—IBM—had funded a project for a computational machine based upon a concept developed by Dr. Harold Aiken at Harvard. Originally called the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator and later dubbed the Harvard Mark I, it was built by IBM but donated to Harvard University, where it was immediately leased out to the U.S. Navy. The behemoth weighed five tons and was fifty feet long, eight feet deep, and eight feet in height.

To exploit the speed at which it could perform mathematical calculations, the Navy turned to Dr. Lieutenant Grace Hopper, a Yale graduate with a Ph.D. in mathematics who had joined the WAVES after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She reported to the Computation Lab at Harvard on July 2, 1944. Hopper’s first assignment: determining the interpolation coefficients for applications of the arc tangent series, with the ultimate purpose being to determine the trajectories of rockets.

The initial staff at the Computation Lab numbered less than a dozen—all Navy reservists—and consisted mainly of enlisted men who had worked at IBM before the war. By January, 1946, their number had grown to nearly forty and the computer was running 24 hours a day processing data for the Navy and other military branches. In all, the Computation Lab finished twenty-three reports for the Bureau of Ships.

And those men who had worked at IBM prior to the U.S. entry into World War II? They were given the unique and very short-lived rating of “International Business Machine Operator”—which became Punched Card Accounting Machine Operator and Key Punch Operator and Supervisor.

Today’s IT Sailors probably couldn’t tell you what a “punched-card” was if you waved in front of their face, but it’s where their rating all started.

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