Hot Spot of Invention Cover

Hot Spot of Invention

Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation

Thomas Wildenberg

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2019, 320 pages

Book Review published on: April 23, 2021

Imagine a man of humble means with a strong sense of patriotism, adventure, and talent for mechanics and technology. Imagine a man who isn’t afraid to “tinker.” Then imagine that through a family financial windfall, there is an opportunity to attend Stanford University to study psychology, and eventually the opportunity to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study and develop instrumentation for automobile engines, flight, and navigation. Hot Spot of Invention: Charles Stark Draper, MIT, and the Development of Inertial Guidance and Navigation is a combination of a short biography of Charles Stark “Doc” Draper and a history of the instrumentation laboratory at MIT.

The result of Doc’s passion for technology and problem solving resulted in technological leaps for inertial navigation, a system that greatly improves the accuracy and precision of the navigation of an object (aircraft, missile, or spacecraft) using computers and sensors. Draper’s drive and determination to create these technologies, and continually improve upon the laboratory’s work, enabled defense programs from the interwar period to today. Examples include aircraft instrumentation, naval gunsights, aerial targeting, air defense platforms, intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (IRBM/ICBM), spy satellites, and space vehicles.

The book is very detailed, superbly cited, and referenced throughout. Several diagrams and schematics assist the reader to conceptualize the inner workings of these systems. The layperson may find the technical information overwhelming and, at times, a dry read. However, the information ensures the reader has the most complete picture of the technological challenges faced by the instrumentation laboratory and Draper’s team.

Hot Spot of Invention highlights the key aspects of the instrumentation laboratory and ultimately Draper’s contribution to the Nation and the body of knowledge. The author balances technical data and information associated with extremely complex aviation, missile, and space systems, with the human aspect of research and development. One of the key takeaways from the book is not how Doc and his students solved these complex technical problems, but rather how Draper enabled the solutions by creating an environment that fostered innovation for the engineers and scientists. He did this while continually driving toward superior technology to meet current and emerging demands, and accomplished these feats through hard work, interpersonal relationships, all while mentoring the next generation of military and civilian engineers and scientists in the laboratory.

Hot Spot of Invention was written by historian and scholar Thomas Wildenberg, who has written and published extensively. Wildenberg has published significant works about aviators, naval aviation, and technological innovation in the military. His writings have appeared in a variety of scholarly journals including the Naval War College Review, Proceedings, and Air Power History. His previous books include Destined for Glory, All the Factors of Victory, Grey Steel and Black Oil, Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy, and Ship Killer.

I strongly recommend this book for members of Army Futures Command, TRADOC capabilities managers, acquisition officers, and the Army Research Laboratory. Additionally, Army aviators, astronauts, air defense, and field artillery officers may find this book enjoyable as well. It captures the need for not only brilliant minds but also for cultivating relationships and leadership in science and technology.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Jacob A. Mong, Retired, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas