As an aeronautical engineer in the 1950s and 1960s, James Drake helped create such amazing technological breakthroughs as the X-15 rocket plane - the first aircraft to travel six times the speed of sound - and the Tomahawk cruise missile, which became a much-relied-upon weapon in the U.S. military arsenal.
But Drake, who passed away June 19 at the age of 83 in Pfafftown, N.C., had an even bigger impact on Americans' leisure pursuits. In his spare time, he invented and patented the first really practical, efficient windsurfing board. In doing so, Drake helped to popularize windsurfing, an aquatic sport that today is enjoyed by 1.1 million Americans, according to the Outdoor Foundation.
Some obituary writers are calling Drake the "father of windsurfing," but in an interview with Windsurfer magazine in 1996, Drake himself was more modest, saying that he had only reinvented and perfected an idea dreamed up by sailing enthusiast Newman Darby, who in the late 1940s got the idea of standing up with a handheld sail to propel and steer a small, flat, rudderless craft, and Peter Chilvers, who in the late 1950s was the first to attach the sail to the board.
"Neither Newman nor Peter were technically oriented people and they didn't appreciate how important streamlining of the hull or board was, and they certainly didn't appreciate the efficiency or the ways about getting efficient sail design," Drake explained in the interview.
In the mid-1960s, when he wasn't traveling between Washington and the headquarters of the RAND Corporation in southern California to work on defense technology, Drake spent a lot of time water skiing with his colleague Fred Payne. The two friends dreamed up the then-crazy notion of water skiing while tethered to a windborne kite instead of a boat for propulsion, but Drake gave up on that as impractical. Instead, while driving to a U.S. Air Force base in the California desert, he came up with the idea of reinventing the sailboard by creating a flexible sail-and-mast design based on 17th-century rudderless sailing ships. (Drake explains his invention in a 1969 technical paper, " Windsurfing - A New Concept in Sailing.") After building a couple of prototypes and trying them out, Drake and colleague Hoyle Schweitzer successfully patented the design for a " Surfing Sailboat" in 1973.