Charles Stark Draper


One of the brightest scientists in the history of our country came from humble beginnings in west-central Missouri.  The inventions of Charles Draper are beyond the scope of what many people can understand, but they changed the way many of us live our lives. He is best known as the “father of inertial navigation,” which allows airplanes to travel around the world with incredible accuracy.


Charles Stark Draper was born on October 2, 1901, and grew up in the small town of Windsor. He showed an amazing aptitude in sciences early in life, which allowed him to attend the University of Missouri for two years, and then Stanford University, where he attained a degree in psychology in 1922. Despite earning the life science degree, he turned his attention to engineering and technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned an advanced degree in electrochemical engineering and a doctorate in physics in 1938.


Dr. Draper’s time at MIT was spent perfecting his scientific knowledge, while also showing his entrepreneurial side by founding the Instrumentation Laboratory (later known as the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc.). Even as a graduate student, he was recognized as a national expert on aeronautical and  meteorological research instruments, eventually becoming the head of the department of aeronautics and astronautics. It became apparent that he was becoming an expert in navigational technology, so more and more of his time became wrapped up in developing these guidance systems.


Draper rose to national prominence about the same time World War II was breaking out. Few people at the time knew who he was, but his inventions were leading to technological advances that transformed antiaircraft weapons. Airplanes were still relatively new, and much of the technology that we rely on today was not yet invented. His gyroscopic technology allowed the military to calculate an aircraft’s future position, taking into account gravity, wind, and distance, both for defense purposes and for tracking our own aircraft. These technologies put the United States ahead of other countries in a period when aircraft were becoming vital for defense and transportation.

Draper with Apollo Guidance System

The technology he developed in the mid-1900s still impacts the way we travel.   The same inventions he gave to the military were later used in civilian aircraft, space vehicles, and ships to sense changes in direction. This dramatically changed and accelerated the advent of mass transit and world travel.  By the time Dr. Draper died in 1987, he had received more than seventy honors from all over the world, including the National Medal of Science from President Lyndon Johnson, the Langley Medal of the Smithsonian Institution, the Robert H. Goddard Trophy of the National Space Club, and the National Academy of Engineering’s Founders Award.


*Draper’s legacy is still honored today with the Draper Prize in Engineering.

*His cousin was Missouri Governor Lloyd C. Stark.

*His guidance system technology was used in the Apollo Space Program.

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