Hot Spot of Invention: Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation

  • Published

Hot Spot of Invention: Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation by Thomas Wildenberg. Naval Institute Press, 2019, 320 pp. 

As you read the Hot Spot of Innovation, it becomes evident that Charles Stark Draper has greatly influenced America’s war-fighting capabilities through his constant push for innovation. Author Thomas Wildenberg gives the reader insight into Draper’s path to developing the theories and applications for his products, shaping the world and our military as we know it today. The book explores how the simple gyroscopic instruments he created primarily for aeronautical applications quickly adapted to naval applications. These instruments formed the bedrock of Air Force and naval navigation systems in submarines, airplanes, rockets, and missiles.

The book follows a typical chronological journey through Draper’s life from childhood. His story begins modestly enough until his family strikes it rich in the Kansas oil fields. The author explores Draper’s near decade-long, multicollege saga through undergraduate school that culminates in his stumbling into MIT, where his future begins. 

Wildenberg describes Draper’s introduction into physics, when he decides to take school seriously and ultimately receives a degree in psychology at Stanford after his fraternity days. However, that is not to say that his fraternity roots went away completely; particular stories are highlighted throughout Draper’s career where his fondness for alcohol and, at times, hilariously outrageous parties come to light.

Although inertial navigation is a foreign concept to most people outside of the physics, navigation, or aviation communities, the book does an excellent job of explaining the basic concepts at a level slightly above the elementary level. It demonstrates how Draper constantly applied pressure to advance gyroscopic technology. His precise engine monitoring through the use of his instrumentation became the system by which the United States deterred the rest of the world from further proliferation or use of nuclear weapons.

While delivering on its promise of walking readers through the world of gyroscopic development and inertial navigation, the book concurrently dives into Stark’s contributions to MIT. This story is a constant thread, which helps to illustrate the scale of Draper’s contributions to national defense while rising through the ranks at MIT. This thread is especially evident during the discussion of his appointment as the deputy director for the MIT instrumentation lab, which was based on his relationship skills, his ability to manage people, and his aptitude in handling more than the technical side of physics. As history tells us, this temporary position led to his appointment as the director of the instrumentation lab and his being the eventual namesake of the laboratory.

Overall, the criticisms of this book are few and far between, and, frankly, selfish in nature. There are several times where the anecdotal stories that would give the reader a glimpse into Draper’s life would simply end without further explanation. This is hardly a fault worth exploring since the historical record is likely not there for the author to investigate the issues further.

Overall, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in Draper’s life, the study of inertial navigation, or who, like me, has a soft spot for anything related to the innovation at Air Force Materiel Command and, specifically, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where much of Draper’s  accomplishments took place. Not only does this journey go through Draper’s life, it expands on the background of the Air Force and his influence in navigating some of the most significant war-fighting mechanisms used throughout history.

Capt Timothy K. Shaw, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."