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CAMBRIDGE — By day, the inventors assembled by Charles Stark “Doc” Draper at MIT built world-changing navigation tools, including devices that would one day put men on the moon.
By night (and, sometimes, by day), they were known to let loose a little.
And as one artifact from the 1950s that recently resurfaced shows, they had a knack for mixing both pursuits together, like a well-shaken martini.
This year, visitors to the lab that bears his name have encountered a newly restored mannequin of Draper that stands proudly in the center of the atrium at the Kendall Square research facility — and holds a secret inside.
On the outside, it’s a formal-looking figure in a suit and tie. Unbutton its jacket, though, and a hidden door opens to a compartment, one that once held a minibar stocked with coupe glasses and bottles of liquor.
The long-forgotten statue was unveiled this year as part of an exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the lab’s split from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when it became a separate facility. Draper’s descendants have been celebrating its reintroduction to the public, as they peel back layers of his impressive life while acknowledging the milestone.
The mannequin, which had been neglected for years before the family restored it, offers a peek at the midcentury’s sometimes boozy work culture, which was as present in the nation’s top laboratories as it was in many offices.
“They were a hard-working bunch and they were a hard-partying bunch,” said James Draper, Charles Stark Draper’s son. “I don’t want to make it sound like MIT was a Saturnalia. It wasn’t, by any means. It’s simply that there was a wholly different value system.”
The mannequin was given to James’s father in 1956, one of many cheeky gifts designed by the lab’s engineers and presented at the company’s annual Christmas parties over the years.
One, for example, was a large model of a rocket ship, which had liquor bottles for thrusters and martini glasses secreted inside its nose cone.
Another was a box built to measure how much the person holding it was swaying, a sobriety test of sorts that only an aerospace engineer might design.
One year, the gift was a cutout of a scantily clad woman, whose head had been replaced with a gyroscope, and who held aloft a box that said “lubricated gyros.”
The current whereabouts of many of these gag gifts is unknown, although photos of them can be found online in the MIT Museum archives.
But the mannequin, which was initially stocked with liquor (Scotch, most likely, or possibly wine) and equipped with a tape that would play a recording of Draper giving an inspiring speech, survived. James’s father had kept it until he died in 1987.
His father, James said, appreciated the gift because it showcased the ingenuity and camaraderie of his team, which he referred to as “the gang.”
“He saw the spirit of ‘the gang’ coming together on a project, whether it was a serious project or not,” he said. “It was a symbol of the great spirit of the lab.”
For decades, the mannequin was hidden away in a barn on Draper’s property, where its color faded, its suit deteriorated, and it began to frighten anyone who laid eyes on it.
“I just thought it was kind of a shame that this wonderful gift was kind of rotting away up in a barn,” said David Capodilupo, Draper’s nephew, who is now an assistant dean at MIT. “I felt like we had to take care of it.”
So in 2021, Capodilupo started a full makeover, spending two years cleaning, refurbishing, and repainting each of its parts.
Most of the components are the original ones that scientists assembled by hand in the 1950s, except for the clothes, which Capodilupo sourced from the Garment District, a vintage shop near MIT.
In what is perhaps a sign of the times, he did make one major change before the statue went on display.
In the version the public sees, the statue is holding up a 3D model of a device called an “inertial measurement unit.” In the original, it held a martini glass.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate these days,” Capodilupo said.
The statue has made quite the impression on visitors, including Anne Ditmeyer, Draper’s granddaughter, who visited it earlier this month.
Ditmeyer, who is doing research for a book or screenplay about his life, said the mannequin offers a fascinating look at his personality that outsiders might not have seen.
“It’s a reminder that he didn’t take himself too seriously. His mantra was ‘It should be fun,’ ” she said. “I like that [the mannequin] is serious on the surface, but there are different layers to it.”
It was similarly inspiring for great-granddaughter Zoya Draper, who said it was neat to see a version of her ancestor, whom she never met, in an exhibit celebrating his accomplishments.
Witnessing the finished product was also a relief, she said, as the mannequin had always made her “uneasy” growing up.
“It was always kind of the weird thing in the barn,” said Draper, 17. “It was cool to see it becoming really quite realistic. I was just really glad to see it get less creepy.”
There are other curiosities in the exhibit, including a collection of Draper’s books, letters, and awards. Visitors can also see a model of a Mars probe that the lab conceived in the 1950s and a display keyboard for a computer that astronauts trained with during the Apollo missions.
A few paces away from the mannequin, other traces of Draper’s personality can be found. Underneath his original desk, there are wires that once connected to a button he installed, which, when pushed, would set the clock in his office to 5 p.m.
The button was meant to keep the peace in his office, where coworkers and students gathered for spirited debates, said Rebecca Carpenter, the lab’s corporate archivist.
“When he believed discussions were getting a bit too heated, he would press it,“ she said, “and tell everyone it was time to have a cocktail.”
The public can see the exhibit for themselves on Fridays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Draper’s family members said they’re glad that a likeness of the man they knew is no longer hiding away in storage, and now gets to stand alongside pieces of his life’s work for all to enjoy.
“I feel like he’s home,” said Capodilupo. “Like he’s finally where he belongs.”