Charles S. Draper

Charles S. Draper

The ‘Father of Inertial Guidance.’

Dr. Charles “Doc” Stark Draper developed the theory, invented and developed the technology, and led the effort that resulted in inertial guidance. Inertial guidance allows a craft to detect directional changes by coordinating gyroscopes (devices that rotate in reaction to change in direction) and accelerometers (which measure changes in acceleration). Inertial guidance is used in aircraft, space vehicles, and submarines. To this day, aircraft across the world keep to their global flight paths thanks to inertial guidance systems derived from Draper’s original inventions.

Born in Windsor, Missouri, on October 2, 1901, Charles Draper attended the University of Missouri in 1917. In 1919 he enrolled at Stanford University, California, and graduated in 1922 with a B.A. in Psychology. He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the same year, earning a B.S. in Electrochemical Engineering in 1926 and an Sc.D. in Physics in 1938. Dr. Draper taught at MIT from 1935 until his retirement in the mid-1980s. As a member of the MIT faculty and later head of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, he developed an extensive program in instrumentation and control. His team of students and technicians formed the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory in 1939, and in 1973 that lab became a separate, nonprofit research and development laboratory, the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc.

“Doc” Draper first won acclaim by developing a spinning gyroscope used to stabilize antiaircraft gun sights for the U.S. Navy during World War II. This led to gyroscopic-balanced bombsights for aircraft, and later inertial guidance system for missiles. Draper later devised the Spatial Inertial Reference Equipment system for automatic aeronautical navigation, which was then miniaturized for use in Polaris submarine missile systems.

First used in targeting systems, then in navigation, Draper’s “inertial guidance systems” were able to automatically sense minute degrees of drift and correct them quickly‚ producing precise projectile trajectories or flight paths. He then designed the spinning gyroscope, used to stabilize antiaircraft gun sights, and leading to the development of guidance systems for launching long-range missiles at fast-moving targets, such as jets.

In 1949, his inertial guidance systems for aircraft navigation were introduced, and in 1954, Draper’s technology was applied to marine vessels. In the 1960s Dr. Draper and his MIT team developed the guidance systems for Project Apollo as well as the submarine-launched Polaris missiles and other strategic missile deployment programs. His guidance systems were crucial to the success of the Saturn missiles that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon and back from 1968 to 1972. In 1973, Charles Stark Draper became a senior scientist at the Draper Laboratory, Inc., where he oversaw development of the guidance systems used for the Space Shuttle, various satellites, and the MX missile.

By the time of his death at the age of eighty-six on July 25, 1987, “Doc” Draper had received more than 70 honors and awards from several nations, including the National Medal of Science from President Lyndon Johnson, the Langley Medal of Smithsonian Institution, the Robert H. Goddard Trophy, and the National Academy of Engineering’ Founders Award.

Dr. Charles Draper was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the French National Academy. He was also president of the International Academy of Astronautics, and a member of the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Dr. Draper is commemorated through one of the world’s preeminent awards for engineering achievement, the Charles Stark Draper Prize, which honors an engineer whose accomplishment has significantly impacted society by improving the quality of life, providing the ability to live freely and comfortably, and/or permitting the access to information.