This Week’s Book Review – Hot Spot of Invention

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

Prominent engineer helps change engineering world

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 21, 2019

“Hot Spot of Invention: Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation” by Thomas Wildenberg, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 320 pages, $48

Charles Stark Draper is one of 20th century’s landmark engineers. “Doc” Draper ran MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory (today’s Draper Labs) for nearly 40 years, leading development of some of the century’s most important guidance and navigation accomplishments.

“Hot Spot of Invention: Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation” by Thomas Wildenberg, is a biography of Draper, and a history of what became the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. As Wildenberg shows, the two stories are indivisible.

Draper grew up in Windsor, Missouri. Always mechanically minded, during World War I at age 16, he became the town’s assistant plumber and electrician. The family moved to California after getting rich through oil royalties. There Draper attended Stanford, getting a degree in psychology. A trip to Boston ended with him enrolling in MIT, entering into a career in engineering.

The man Wildenberg describes could’ve played the stock scientist-inventor of 1920s science fiction. Draper was briefly a speakeasy bartender, boxer and an Air Corp Cadet during those years. He owned his own airplane, which he used to visit family in California.

Draper was also an outstanding engineer, developing aircraft instruments at MIT, sometimes testing them himself in-flight. By 1935, he was an assistant professor at MIT and running MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. He proved as talented in developing students, and assembling research teams as he was at engineering.

Wildenberg shows what came next. Draper’s specialty was gyroscopes. During World War II he developed a gyroscopically-controlled gunsight. This gunsight proved so effective, 80 percent of the enemy aircraft the U.S. Navy shot down in 1944 and 1945 were destroyed by guns equipped with them.

Following World War II, he pioneered inertial navigation systems. The Submarine Inertial Navigation System, the aircraft Space Inertial Reference Equipment and the guidance systems for the Polaris, Poseidon and Trident missiles were developed under Draper’s guidance. His team developed the computers used to land Apollo’s Lunar Modules.

“Hot Spot of Invention” delivers a fascinating study of a protean engineer. It captures the spirit of engineering from the 1930s through the 1970s, highlighting one of its most influential engineers.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

7+
avataravataravataravataravataravataravatar

25 thoughts on “This Week’s Book Review – Hot Spot of Invention”

  1. I take navigation for granted today because of GPS. It is so easy to have a computer calculate things for me.

    “Sonny, in my day we had to use folding maps and yell and our wives for not being able to read them. Real men never asked for directions.”

    0

  2. 10 Cents:
    I take navigation for granted today because of GPS. It is so easy to have a computer calculate things for me.

    You are confusing inertial navigation with GPS. Inertial navigation would be a poor choice for driving because of drift. There’s a reason that GPS was deployed.

    0

  3. drlorentz:

    10 Cents:
    I take navigation for granted today because of GPS. It is so easy to have a computer calculate things for me.

    You are confusing inertial navigation with GPS. Inertial navigation would be a poor choice for driving because of drift. There’s a reason that GPS was deployed.

    I think Honda came up with an initial car navigational system using inertial navigation. For the above reasons it didn’t catch on.

    Why would I confuse inertial navigation, dead reckoning, celestial navigation, or LORAN with GPS?  I was just commenting on the difficulties of navigation before. There used to be even a dedicated navigator on airplanes but not now.

    0

  4. Did anyone ever hear of this in 1981?

    1981: Honda’s Electro Gyro-Cator was the first commercially available car navigation system. It used inertial navigation systems, which tracked the distance traveled, the start point, and direction headed.[5] It was also the first with a map display.[

    1+
    avatar
  5. My 2008 Buick has the worlds best inertial navigation system. Today, the nav system showed my exact position and direction for my entire 8-mile drive to work, despite also saying it had no GPS signal.

    Or it erroneously is displaying the no GPS signal icon…

    0

  6. ctlaw:
    My 2008 Buick has the worlds best inertial navigation system. Today, the nav system showed my exact position and direction for my entire 8-mile drive to work, despite also saying it had no GPS signal.

    Or it erroneously is displaying the no GPS signal icon…

    I want to see the Venn diagram of gullible people and Buick owners, CT.

    1+
    avatar
  7. 10 Cents:

    ctlaw:
    My 2008 Buick has the worlds best inertial navigation system. Today, the nav system showed my exact position and direction for my entire 8-mile drive to work, despite also saying it had no GPS signal.

    Or it erroneously is displaying the no GPS signal icon…

    I want to see the Venn diagram of gullible people and Buick owners, CT.

    That’s harsh! =)

    0

  8. 10 Cents:
    Why would I confuse inertial navigation, dead reckoning, celestial navigation, or LORAN with GPS?

    I don’t know. Why would you?

    I was just commenting on the difficulties of navigation before. There used to be even a dedicated navigator on airplanes but not now.

    Draper’s work, the subject of the OP, was on inertial navigation, not any other kinds. GPS and inertial navigation are unrelated technologies. Navigators and flight engineers on commercial aircraft were being phased out long before GPS became available for civilian use.

    0

  9. drlorentz:

    10 Cents:
    Why would I confuse inertial navigation, dead reckoning, celestial navigation, or LORAN with GPS?

    I don’t know. Why would you?

    I was just commenting on the difficulties of navigation before. There used to be even a dedicated navigator on airplanes but not now.

    Draper’s work, the subject of the OP, was on inertial navigation, not any other kinds. GPS and inertial navigation are unrelated technologies. Navigators and flight engineers on commercial aircraft were being phased out long before GPS became available for civilian use.

    It is best when you stop at “I don’t know.”

    1+
    avatar
  10. Black Prince:

    10 Cents:

    ctlaw:
    My 2008 Buick has the worlds best inertial navigation system. Today, the nav system showed my exact position and direction for my entire 8-mile drive to work, despite also saying it had no GPS signal.

    Or it erroneously is displaying the no GPS signal icon…

    I want to see the Venn diagram of gullible people and Buick owners, CT.

    That’s harsh! =)

    What do expect from a Toyota driver?

    0

  11. Here is a 43 minute lecture by “Doc” Draper on the principles of inertial guidance from the early 1960s.

    From his wilder younger years, “The Airplane at Play” is a 15 minute silent film showing a pilot’s eye view of aerobatic maneuvers.

    1+
    avatar
  12. 10 Cents:

    drlorentz:

    10 Cents:
    Why would I confuse inertial navigation, dead reckoning, celestial navigation, or LORAN with GPS?

    I don’t know. Why would you?

    I was just commenting on the difficulties of navigation before. There used to be even a dedicated navigator on airplanes but not now.

    Draper’s work, the subject of the OP, was on inertial navigation, not any other kinds. GPS and inertial navigation are unrelated technologies. Navigators and flight engineers on commercial aircraft were being phased out long before GPS became available for civilian use.

    It is best when you stop at “I don’t know.”

    It’s even better when you stop before you start. But you can still answer the question.

    0

  13. I wonder how small an inertial navigation system could be made now.

    How is an accelerometer made?

    Is an inertial navigation system the only system to not use some form of the electromagnetic spectrum? Most systems use light or radio waves, right?

    0

  14. 10 Cents:
    I wonder how small an inertial navigation system could be made now.

    Here is one that fits in a 30×30×24 mm box and includes a GNSS receiver to correct for drift in the internal measurement unit.  The big breakthrough in miniaturisation and ruggedness was replacing spinning gyroscopes with ring laser gyros based upon the Sagnac effect.  Tiny inertial measurement units are a hot topic in defence aerospace now as they provide a countermeasure for GNSS jammers and spoofing.

    2+
    avataravatar
  15. John Walker:

    10 Cents:
    I wonder how small an inertial navigation system could be made now.

    Here is one that fits in a 30×30×24 mm cube and includes a GNSS receiver to correct for drift in the internal measurement unit.  The big breakthrough in miniaturisation and ruggedness was replacing spinning gyroscopes with ring laser gyros based upon the Sagnac effect.  Tiny inertial measurement units are a hot topic in defence aerospace now as they provide a countermeasure for GNSS jammers and spoofing.

    Changing to laser probably changed the power consumption compared to gyros. Thank you. I was wondering how 50 odd years had changed things. GNSS stands for “Global Navigation Satellite System”. (I had to look it up.)

    I interested in this Sagnac Effect and ring lasers. I have my homework cut out for me.

    0

  16. John Walker:

    10 Cents:
    I wonder how small an inertial navigation system could be made now.

    Here is one that fits in a 30×30×24 mm cube and includes a GNSS receiver to correct for drift in the internal measurement unit.  The big breakthrough in miniaturisation and ruggedness was replacing spinning gyroscopes with ring laser gyros based upon the Sagnac effect.  Tiny inertial measurement units are a hot topic in defence aerospace now as they provide a countermeasure for GNSS jammers and spoofing.

    Most phones now contain accelerometers and gyros. They are MEMS. There are apps that give the user direct access to the data.

    I’m skeptical that the unit linked above relies on ring laser gyros (RLGs); there was no mention in the specs about the technology used. RLGs are power hungry and overkill for a device that also has GNSS. More precise inertial systems are only required in GPS-denied areas or for redundancy in critical systems.

    Edit: The data sheet specifically states the gyro is MEMS.

    2+
    avataravatar
  17. drlorentz:

    John Walker:

    10 Cents:
    I wonder how small an inertial navigation system could be made now.

    Here is one that fits in a 30×30×24 mm cube and includes a GNSS receiver to correct for drift in the internal measurement unit.  The big breakthrough in miniaturisation and ruggedness was replacing spinning gyroscopes with ring laser gyros based upon the Sagnac effect.  Tiny inertial measurement units are a hot topic in defence aerospace now as they provide a countermeasure for GNSS jammers and spoofing.

    Most phones now contain accelerometers and gyros. They are MEMS. There are apps that give the user direct access to the data.

    I’m skeptical that the unit linked above relies on ring laser gyros (RLGs); there was no mention in the specs about the technology used. RLGs are power hungry and overkill for a device that also has GNSS. More precise inertial systems are only required in GPS-denied areas or for redundancy in critical systems.

    How small are the phone gyros? Any idea on the RPMs?

    0

  18. 10 Cents:

    drlorentz:

    John Walker:

    10 Cents:
    I wonder how small an inertial navigation system could be made now.

    Here is one that fits in a 30×30×24 mm cube and includes a GNSS receiver to correct for drift in the internal measurement unit.  The big breakthrough in miniaturisation and ruggedness was replacing spinning gyroscopes with ring laser gyros based upon the Sagnac effect.  Tiny inertial measurement units are a hot topic in defence aerospace now as they provide a countermeasure for GNSS jammers and spoofing.

    Most phones now contain accelerometers and gyros. They are MEMS. There are apps that give the user direct access to the data.

    I’m skeptical that the unit linked above relies on ring laser gyros (RLGs); there was no mention in the specs about the technology used. RLGs are power hungry and overkill for a device that also has GNSS. More precise inertial systems are only required in GPS-denied areas or for redundancy in critical systems.

    How small are the phone gyros? Any idea on the RPMs?

    Gyro is a bit misleading. Nothing is spinning. These gyros sense angle rates inertially, much as you notice that a car is turning because you’re pulled to one side. This page explains the details.

    2+
    avataravatar
  19. drlorentz:

    10 Cents:

    drlorentz:

    John Walker:

    10 Cents:
    I wonder how small an inertial navigation system could be made now.

    Here is one that fits in a 30×30×24 mm cube and includes a GNSS receiver to correct for drift in the internal measurement unit.  The big breakthrough in miniaturisation and ruggedness was replacing spinning gyroscopes with ring laser gyros based upon the Sagnac effect.  Tiny inertial measurement units are a hot topic in defence aerospace now as they provide a countermeasure for GNSS jammers and spoofing.

    Most phones now contain accelerometers and gyros. They are MEMS. There are apps that give the user direct access to the data.

    I’m skeptical that the unit linked above relies on ring laser gyros (RLGs); there was no mention in the specs about the technology used. RLGs are power hungry and overkill for a device that also has GNSS. More precise inertial systems are only required in GPS-denied areas or for redundancy in critical systems.

    How small are the phone gyros? Any idea on the RPMs?

    Gyro is a bit misleading. Nothing is spinning. These gyros sense angle rates inertially, much as you notice that a car is turning because you’re pulled to one side. This page explains the details.

    Is it like people say “icebox” for refrigerator? It takes its place but is different. It makes sense to not have spinning things if it can be done without.

    0

Leave a Reply