Charles Stark Draper Biography (1901-1987)


Charles Stark Draper is best known for his work on gyroscopic instruments andother navigation systems for sea, air, and space craft. He was born on October 2, 1901, in Windsor, Missouri. After high school, he attended the University of Missouri for two years before transferring to the psychology program atStanford University in Palo Alto, California, in 1919. After his graduationfrom Stanford with a bachelor's degree in psychology, Draper made a decisionthat changed the course of his life: he agreed to drive to Boston with a friend who planned to enroll at Harvard. As the two young men drove through Cambridge, Massachusetts, the scenic view from the road near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) caught Draper's attention, and he convinced his friend to stop for a better look. Several hours later, Draper emerged from theschool's campus having enrolled in its electrochemistry program.

Draper continued as a student at MIT through 1938, receiving a bachelor's degree in electrochemical engineering in 1926, a master's degree in 1928, and doctorate in physics in 1938. In 1939, he became a Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at MIT. Draper's interest in aviation greatly influenced his research. As an aircraft owner and pilot, he was directly affected by airplane engine performance and navigational capabilities. This practical approach alwaysinformed his theoretical research. Among his accomplishments during his earlyyears are improvements to the magnetic compass, the rate of turn indicator,the rate of speed indicator, the rate of climb indicator, and other gyroscopic instruments.

Developments in Draper's work eventually led to the 1940 founding of MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory. Through the Instrumentation Laboratory (originallynamed the Confidential Instrument Development Laboratory) Draper played a crucial role in improving navigational technology during World War II. His workon a more accurate and reliable gunsight for use onboard United States Navy vessels was prompted by the sinking of two warships in 1941. The problem withthe existing antiaircraft guns was that their gyroscopes did not give enoughtracking data to allow for computer-aided targeting. Draper addressed this difficulty in his Mark 14 gunsight. A "rated" gyroscope floating in viscous fluid was the basis of Draper's device. The gyroscope could compute the data necessary to achieve a direct hit of a designated object including the precise target range, wind velocity, and angle of the weapon. This allowed the gunnerto simply bring the marked plane within a circle of dots on a reflecting glass to aim his gun. The Mark 14 proved its worth at the 1942 battle of Santa Cruz on board the U.S.S. South Dakota, and thereafter became standard inall United States Navy antiaircraft guns.

Draper also helped develop a gunsight system for aircraft. Called the A-1, italso was an immediate success. Advanced models of this later gave the F-86 Sabre an advantage in the Korean War against Russian-built planes. Although the war ended, Draper continued to work on research for the United States military. His areas of research included inertial navigation and guidance systemsfor sea and air that calculated the course of the craft without input from external sources. The first project he took on was developing a partially inertial navigating system including a gyrocompass and Marine Stable Element (fromwhich the project, MAST, took its name) for use on ships and submarines.

In 1951, Draper began a project known as SINS--Ship's Inertial Navigation System--which made the theory of an entirely inertial sea navigation system a reality. The problem SINS overcame was the tendency of gyros to drift off course over several months of operation unless they are corrected. Not many peopletook notice of Draper's initial demonstration of SINS, but among those who did was Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover--an instrumental figure in the developmentof the nuclear submarine. Rickover immediately saw the potential use of SINSwith nuclear submarines and agreed to sponsor the further development of thesystem. Once the success of SINS was proved, United States military leadersasked Draper to develop navigational systems for Polaris ballistic missiles that would interface with the SINS unit on the submarine from which the missile was launched.

The success of his work on the navigation system of the Polaris missiles resulted in a Distinguished Public Service Award from the Navy. Draper was subsequently involved in many ground-breaking rocket, aviation, and space projects.Project SPIRE, for example, was an inertial autopilot system that succeededin keeping the plane on course throughout a flight across the United States,correcting for winds and currents, and elevating the plane to clear the RockyMountains. Draper was instrumental in designing navigational systems for themid-range Thor and long-range Titan rockets. During the 1960s,the Instrumental Laboratory under Draper's supervision designed navigationalsystems for the Apollo manned missions to the moon. Draper's chief technical work was clearly the inertial guidance system. His influence, however, spread beyond the bounds of his technical contributions to the work of hisfellow researchers and students. Draper's philosophies, techniques, and methods of examining scientific results informed an entire generation of scientists and engineers who followed him. Draper died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, onJuly 25, 1987.

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