The “father of inertial navigation,” Dr. Charles Stark Draper evolved the theory, invented and developed the technology, and led the effort that brought inertial navigation, which allows vehicles to sense changes in direction by linking gyroscopes and accelerometers along three axes, to operational use in aircraft, space vehicles, and submarines.
Doc Draper was a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, where he founded the university’s Instrumentation Laboratory in the 1930s. The lab incorporated as a separate, nonprofit research and development laboratory bearing his name in 1973.
Draper used three spinning gyros for his guidance systems, with each gyro responding to one direction of motion – up and down, right and left, or rolling. Together, these gyros created a system which could remember an object’s course of flight and measure changes in course. Draper’s work was revolutionary. Howard W. Johnson, a former chairman of the MIT Corporation, observed that Draper’s research “created a whole new industry in inertial instruments and systems for airplanes, ships, submarines, missiles, satellites and space vehicles.”
In the 1960s, the laboratory conceived, designed, and assisted with the operation of the guidance, control, and navigation equipment for the Apollo moon landings. Draper took great pride in these contributions. “The great achievement of this Laboratory was to supply the design for the primary hardware and software necessary to solve the Apollo guidance navigation and control problem,” he said.
Born in Windsor, Missouri, on October 2, 1901, Draper graduated from Stanford University in 1922 with a B.A. in psychology. He entered MIT the same year, earning an S.B. in electrochemical engineering in 1926 and a Sc.D. in physics in 1938.
Draper was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1965. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame. By the time of his death in 1987, he had received more than 70 honors and awards in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR.
Draper Laboratory has carried forward its founder's dedication to applied research, engineering development, education, and technology transfer. While deepening its expertise in guidance, navigation, and control through continuing work for the Department of Defense and NASA, Draper Lab’s expertise has expanded into other technology areas, including biomedical engineering and energy. Reflecting Doc Draper's teaching philosophy of learning by doing, Draper Lab supports advanced technical education through the Draper Fellow Program, which allows graduate students to perform their thesis research at the Laboratory.