Known as Stark to his family and friends, Doc to his students and colleagues, the father of inertial navigation to the Navy, and Mr. Gyro to the public, Charles Stark Draper left a lasting impact and legacy that are evident to this day.
He led his students and colleagues at MIT to and through World War II with the development of the Mark 14 Gunsight (or Doc’s Shoebox), the Apollo Program landing a man on the moon, and Polaris missile project.
Draper was born on October 2, 1901, in Windsor, Missouri, to Charles Arthur Draper and Martha Washington Stark. He entered college at the age of fifteen at the Rolla Campus of the University of Missouri, and transferred after two years to Stanford University, where he earned his bachelor of arts degree in psychology in 1922.
Following his graduation, he hitched a ride with some friends across country to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the intention of studying at Harvard University. However, upon visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, Draper became enthralled in the school’s work and enrolled himself there.
Four years later, he had earned a bachelor of science degree in electro-chemical engineering. Briefly after earning his bachelor’s degree, Draper became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve, but failed qualification for a pilot. Draper returned to MIT, obtained a master’s degree in 1928 and then a doctorate in 1938. He also accepted the Crane Research Fellowship with the Engine Lab, which began a decades-long relationship with the Institute.
Doc began teaching at MIT in 1930, while continuing his fellowship, and in 1932 he founded a teaching laboratory to develop aeronautical instrumentation. The lab started as the Aeronautical Instrument Laboratory and went through at least 11 verified name changes. The most notable names were the Instrumentation Laboratory and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory.
During World War II, Doc Draper and the lab developed the Mark 14 Gun Sight, which went on to be the most popular sight used by the Allies, with more than 85,000 built and installed.
At the end of World War II and into the Cold War, the Lab continued to work closely on government-funded projects. In 1957, the United States Navy issued a contract to design, model, and test an all-inertial guidance system for the Polaris missile, starting a relationship that continues today between the Navy and Draper.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed to putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded the first major contract for the Apollo Program to the Instrumentation Laboratory for the guidance and control system. In 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed the first man on the moon with the expertise and help of the staff at the Lab.
The 1960s also saw a great deal of unrest, as protests against the Vietnam war and nuclear research spread across the U.S., including on the MIT campus. These protests came to the doors of the Instrumentation Lab and the Lincoln Lab for their respective projects with the government. Due the growing sentiment against nuclear research on campus, MIT President Howard Johnson created the Pounds Panel to review both special labs and their activities. Doc spoke with this panel several times and submitted a position paper on behalf of the Lab because he believed that freedom of scientific research was integral to the institute’s mission and wished it to remain a division of MIT, however that was for naught.
President Johnson announced in 1970 that MIT would divest itself of the newly renamed Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a division of MIT, no later than July 1, 1973. With the help of MIT leadership and staff, a newly formed Board of Directors for the Lab and Doc navigated the time-consuming, arduous, and at times sad process.
On July 1, 1973, The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc., was formed as an independent nonprofit company, which continued its previous record of successes. The company has expanded its mission to provide innovative engineering solutions and capabilities to customers across areas of biotechnology, space, national defense, and strategic systems. This is Doc’s legacy of innovation.