Today in Technology History

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October 2

Charles Stark Draper (1901-1987)One century ago, engineer Charles Stark Draper was born. He invented a navigation system used on ships, submarines, airplanes and spacecraft.

Draper was born on October 2, 1901 in Windsor, Missouri. Although he earned a degree in psychology from Stanford, he became interested in engineering. He earned a pilot's license, and enrolled at M.I.T. He was the kind of student, someone once wrote of him, who would take "professors on terrifying airplane rides to prove some point of aerodynamics." He received a master's degree in engineering and a doctorate in physics.

Draper then founded the Instrumentation Laboratory at M.I.T., where he did important work with gyroscopes, simple rotating devices that continue to spin in a single direction even if they are turned. Draper realized he could build instruments that exploited the peculiarly stable spinning of gyroscopes.

His first major success was a system used for aiming and steadying guns aboard U.S. Navy vessels so the guns could target enemy aircraft. In one 1942 battle, USS South Dakota used Draper's systems to shoot down an incredible 32 Japanese attack planes. After the war, Draper's guidance systems were used on countless missiles, and his navigation systems were incorporated into many ships and airplanes.

The most spectacular achievement of "Doc" Draper's lab was in having designed the navigational system used for the Apollo missions. Draper's system guided the astronauts to the Moon -- and in the Apollo 13 crisis, successfully guided the astronauts safely around the Moon and back home.

Draper died in 1987. The lab he founded, now independent of M.I.T., still exists. And the prestigious "Charles Stark Draper Prize" in his honor is awarded biennially to a deserving engineer.

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