“Hot Spot of Invention: Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation” by Thomas Wildenberg, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 320 pages, $48
Charles Stark Draper is one of 20th century’s landmark engineers. “Doc” Draper ran MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory (today’s Draper Labs) for nearly 40 years, leading development of some of the century’s most important guidance and navigation accomplishments.
“Hot Spot of Invention: Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation” by Thomas Wildenberg, is a biography of Draper, and a history of what became the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. As Wildenberg shows, the two stories are indivisible.
Draper grew up in Windsor, Missouri. Always mechanically minded, during World War I at age 16, he became the town’s assistant plumber and electrician. The family moved to California after getting rich through oil royalties. There Draper attended Stanford, getting a degree in psychology. A trip to Boston ended with him enrolling in MIT, entering into a career in engineering.
The man Wildenberg describes could've played the stock scientist-inventor of 1920s science fiction. Draper was briefly a speakeasy bartender, boxer and an Air Corp Cadet during those years. He owned his own airplane, which he used to visit family in California.
Draper was also an outstanding engineer, developing aircraft instruments at MIT, sometimes testing them himself in-flight. By 1935, he was an assistant professor at MIT and running MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. He proved as talented in developing students, and assembling research teams as he was at engineering.
Wildenberg shows what came next. Draper’s specialty was gyroscopes. During World War II he developed a gyroscopically-controlled gunsight. This gunsight proved so effective, 80 percent of the enemy aircraft the U.S. Navy shot down in 1944 and 1945 were destroyed by guns equipped with them.
Following World War II, he pioneered inertial navigation systems. The Submarine Inertial Navigation System, the aircraft Space Inertial Reference Equipment and the guidance systems for the Polaris, Poseidon and Trident missiles were developed under Draper’s guidance. His team developed the computers used to land Apollo’s Lunar Modules.
“Hot Spot of Invention” delivers a fascinating study of a protean engineer. It captures the spirit of engineering from the 1930s through the 1970s, highlighting one of its most influential engineers.