Lawrence Burst Sperry, Sr.
Lawrence was a chip off the old block, a real-life Tom Swift, just like his father, Elmer, Sr. As a youngster, he and his brother Elmer turned the house into an airplane factory, building part of an aircraft in the attic while the rest of the family was on vacation. To remove the aircraft from the house the boys ripped out a bay window in their parents’ bedroom and floated safely to the yard below.
- Sperry demonstrated his father’s gyrostabilizer before a large crowd at the international airplane safety competition in Paris, France on June 18th, 1914. This demonstration earned the Sperrys a 50,000 franc prize.
- In 1915 he conceived of a three-way gyrostabilizer to steer bombing planes.
- He developed the first amphibious flying boat in 1915 and added lights to it to make night flights.
- Before the U.S. entered World War I he became one of the first civilians commissioned in the Navy Flying Corps Reserve.
- He formed the Sperry Aircraft Company in 1917 to perfect the gyrostabilizer and other flight instruments.
- He helped to develop the aerial torpedo, small guided planes carrying explosives, during World War I.
- In 1918 he developed a triplane amphibian for the Navy and an improved self-contained parachute demonstrating it at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio in 1918.
- Following World War I he built the Sperry Messenger biplane for the Army Air Service, followed by the Verville-Sperry Racer which featured a retractable landing gear and clean wing design and won the 1924 Pulitzer Trophy Race.
- In 1922 he converted the Messenger into a private sport plane that can be kept in an ordinary garage. He later added a releasable landing gear, fuselage skids and top wing hook to permit in flight refueling.
Lawrence Burst Sperry’s obsession with aviation began in 1909 when he witnessed a daring flight by Henri Farman. That spurred what would be a lifelong interest in aviation, and Sperry soon decided to build a plane even better than Farman’s.
When the rest of the family went on a vacation, Lawrence, aided by his brother, Elmer Jr., turned the Sperry home into a veritable airplane factory. They even built some parts in the attic! To remove these parts from the house, the boys ripped out a bay window in their parents’ bedroom and slipped them to freedom in the yard below. Unfortunately, when Mother Sperry returned, the sight of the jagged hole in her bedroom almost gave her a heart attack. She sobbed that “Lawrence is a chip off the old block, a real-life Tom Swift like his inventive father.” Late in summer Sperry took the glider to a nearby race track. With Lawrence aboard, it soared briefly into the air before crashing. Despite his cuts and bruises, Sperry yelled, “We flew!” After more flights, the boys skipped school and added wheels and an engine to convert the glider into one of the world’s first tractor biplanes. When everything was ready, it came to life, and Lawrence went airborne for six minutes before landing safely. But the boys’ jubilation would be short-lived, for when they returned home their school principal was waiting to inquire about their absences. Their parents were stunned, and looked for a way to bring their son under control. They eventually shipped Lawrence off to a school in Arizona. While there, he spent some of his free time going aloft in a captive balloon. He was thrilled, and in the spring of 1912 wrote his parents, pleading that they allow him to become a pilot. To Lawrence’s surprise, his father agreed! As it turned out the elder Sperry had already arranged with the Navy for his Sperry Gyroscope Company to develop a flight stabilizer, to be tested at aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss’s facility at Hammondsport, New York. He suggested that Lawrence could learn to fly at Hammondsport. When Lawrence returned home he helped his father develop the device, which utilized gyros to operate a plane’s pilot controls through servomotors. It also placed a plane into a life-saving glide whenever its flying speed dropped too low.
Lawrence went to Hammondsport in late 1912, where Navy pilot Theodore Gordon Ellyson test flew the first gyrostabilized airplane. Then Lawrence accompanied Curtiss to San Diego where he installed the device on an Army plane. But, after several crashes, the Army lost interest. Lawrence’s gloom was short-lived, for the Navy made available a flying boat for further tests at Hammondsport. There, Sperry and Navy Lieutenant Bellinger logged 58 test flights, during which the gyrostabilizer showed real promise. Lawrence was also elated when he completed his flying lessons and received his pilot certificate.
Almost immediately, the Sperrys entered an improved gyrostabilizer in the International Airplane Safety Competition in France. When Lawrence arrived in Paris, he and his mechanic installed the device on a Curtiss flying boat. On June 18th, 1914, Lawrence’s parents joined the thousands lining the Seine River to watch the competition. Like the rest of the spectators, they were awed when in a flight over the jury of experts Lawrence let go of the controls and stands up with his hands high over his head, and the plane remained level. The Sperrys heard a gasp from the crowd when the mechanic walked out on the wing and again Lawrence let go of the controls. The Sperrys joined in the roar of approval as Lawrence throttled the engine and the plane automatically went into a glide. When Lawrence landed safely, the jury realized that it had witnessed one of the most convincing demonstrations in aviation, and it awarded the Sperrys a 50,000 franc prize. Interest in the gyrostabilizer soared, but the tragic outbreak of World War I put a damper on its development.
In late 1915, Lawrence journeyed to England, where he conceived of a three-way gyrostabilizer to steer bombing planes, and also arranged for Sperry Gyroscope to manufacture aircraft compasses. When he returned home, Lawrence developed the first amphibious flying boat in history. He also investigated the problems of night flying by adding lights to his flying boat, and went on to make night flights of up to 80 miles. At this point Lawrence began the secret development of the “aerial torpedo,” a small guided drone plane carrying high explosives. But when the military refused to finance its development, Lawrence temporarily set it aside, although the government later granted him a patent on the idea.
Just before America entered World War I, Lawrence became one of the first civilians to receive a commission in the Navy Flying Corps Reserve. He helped to train reserve pilots and accompanied the fleet on maneuvers. However, after an appendicitis operation the Navy placed him on inactive duty. After he recuperated, Lawrence began preliminary work on a revolutionary gyro compass and a gyro artificial horizon. However, the perfection of these flight instruments would take years to achieve.
In early 1917, young Lawrence formed his own Sperry Aircraft Company to perfect the gyrostabilizer and develop flight instruments. Before long, he invented the gyroscopic bank and turn indicator, an instrument that is still standard on modern aircraft. During the war the Sperrys again took up the development of the aerial torpedo as an answer to the German submarine menace. The Sperry Gyroscope Company concentrated on its controls, while Lawrence worked with Curtiss’s company on its airframe.
Meanwhile, Lawrence had met lovely movie actress Winifred Allen. The attraction was mutual and on New Year’s Day, 1918, he proposed when they were aloft in his plane. She accepted, and after their marriage they flew away in one of the first aerial honeymoons on record. Meanwhile, Lawrence continued his efforts to perfect the aerial torpedo and mounted one on a rack atop his roadster and raced along the beach to create a natural wind tunnel and prove its structural feasibility.
Finally, in 1918, the aerial torpedo made the first entirely successful flight of an automatic missile. However, with the Armistice ending World War I, interest in an automatic missile faded quickly. Meanwhile, Lawrence also developed a triplane amphibian for the Navy. Although it was a success, the government lost interest in it, too, after the Armistice. In addition, in early 1918, Lawrence began working on an improved self-contained parachute. This concept was very promising and it was publicly demonstrated at McCook Field. Stepping out of the plane, Lawrence delighted the crowd by falling 2000 feet before pulling the rip cord. Unfortunately, winds carried him over downtown Dayton and he landed on top of its tallest building, as fire engines rushed to the scene. But when Lawrence calmly jumped from the building and floated safely to the ground, his father, an ardent prohibitionist, deadpanned, “I think we all need a drink!”
After the war, Lawrence built the Sperry “Messenger”, a small versatile biplane, for the Army Air Service. He later converted six of them into improved aerial torpedoes, and controlled them through radio to hit targets. This achievement earned Lawrence a $40,000 bonus. The Air Service’s General Billy Mitchell was so impressed that he called Lawrence one of the most brilliant minds and greatest developers in the world of aviation. Soon afterwards Lawrence built the Verville-Sperry Racer for the Air Service. It featured a retractable landing gear and a clean wing design, and later won the grueling 1924 Pulitzer Trophy Race.
In 1922, Lawrence converted the Messenger into a private sport plane, one that could be kept in an ordinary garage and was easy to fly. Lawrence demonstrated his new achievement in a dramatic way. Angered because the government was slow to make payments on his contracts, Lawrence fueled the plane and flew to Washington to strike a telling blow against the bureaucracy. Circling the Capitol at ground level to disrupt Congress, he landed directly on the Capitol steps and stormed into the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Later he landed in front of the Lincoln Memorial, before striding into the Treasury building to collect his money and flying back home. Lawrence kept improving the Messenger and invented a releasable landing gear and fuselage skids. This enabled the plane to take off, parachute the wheels, and then land in less than one-tenth of the normal distance. Another of his ingenious developments was to add a hook on his plane’s top wing for engaging a dirigible or larger plane to permit in-flight refueling.
In 1923 Lawrence took the Messenger to England for demonstration to the Royal Air Force. But negotiations dragged on because of England’s political election campaign that was happening at the time. In fact, Lawrence dropped political leaflets from his plane, the first time in history that an airplane was used for election literature. Soon afterward, Lawrence took off for Amsterdam. Unfortunately, he disappeared over the English Channel. Investigators later surmised that engine trouble forced him to land, and he succumbed to the Channel’s treacherous currents and frigid waters.
The aviation world lost Lawrence Burst Sperry, Sr. in 1923, one of its most brilliant contributors, and a true pioneer in instrumental flight. His daring, youthful spirit and inquisitive mind live on today. All those who fly and benefit from his creative genius in one way or another, and Sperry merits their deepest respects and admiration.
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