NORC was created for the Navy on a research and development basis under a cost-plus-fixed-fee arrangement (the fixed fee was a whopping $1.00). IBM undertook the project to gain valuable experience in designing, building and maintaining a machine for intensive technical computing that would incorporate the latest technologies. In doing so, the company wanted to push beyond the capabilities of its powerful Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) of 1948 to produce a machine rated at more than 200 SSECs. (The SSEC was the first operating computer to combine electronic computation with stored instructions. It had more than 12,000 vacuum tubes and 21,000 electromechanical relays.)
What IBM turned over to the Navy 50 years ago was a computer characterized by high-speed, high-precision, floating-point operations, automatic address modification, and automatic checking of arithmetic accuracy.
Using eight special ultra high-speed magnetic tape units from IBM's Poughkeepsie Laboratory, NORC could read 70,000 characters a second from a single tape (it would take 14,000 people to type that much data in the same time.) Numbers stored in NORC's memory could be recalled in eight-millionths of a second from any one of 2,000 locations. The computer could produce records at the rate of 18,000 characters a minute on printers built at IBM's Endicott facility.
With its unsurpassed speed and reliability, NORC handled such problems as intricate ballistic computations that involved billions of multiplications, divisions, additions and subtractions. The calculations, for example, were used to evaluate the exact position of a projectile or missile through every moment of its flight, factoring in such variables as weather, wind, temperature, air pressure and muzzle velocity.