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Sperry Sr., Elmer

Sperry, Elmer Ambrose, Sr.

Enshrined 1973 1860-1930

“Yankee ingenuity” helped Elmer Sperry earn more than 350 patents and found eight companies. Among his patents were those for electric trolleys, high intensity searchlights, railroad safety devises, and most important, the gyroscopic compass. This compass made autopilot steering possible in both air and sea travel.

    He designed and built the first gyrostabilizer to help the pilot control the airplane’s yaw, pitch and roll.
    He built a sensing device to put a plane into a glide when flying too slowly and a high-powered anti-aircraft searchlight.
    In 1914 he received the Collier Trophy for his gyrostabilizer achievement.
    He developed other aircraft safety devices including the GyroTurn Indicator, later known as the turn and bank indicator and an optical drift indicator which won him the 1916 Collier Trophy.
    He built the first aerial torpedo in 1917 which later became the first successful guided missile.
    Following World War I he developed the automatic pilot, now standard equipment on all commercial, business and military aircraft worldwide.
    He invented a gyroscopically stabilized bombsight, and combined his aerial gyrocompass, artificial horizon and radio beacons to achieve the first blind flight in 1929 by Jimmy Doolittle.
    The U.S. Navy named the USS Sperry in his honor.
    Sperry’s devices were used in the steamship Queen Mary and in the warships of Word War II.
    He is remembered as the father of modern navigational technology.



In 1909, when aviation was still very new, Dr. Elmer Ambrose Sperry, Sr. turned his inventive genius toward the problems of controlling aircraft in flight. He eventually designed a gyrostabilizer for an early monoplane. But the 30 pound weight of the large gyro ruined the plane’s flying ability. In failure, Sperry reflected: “Of all the vehicles on Earth, the airplane is that particular beast of burden which is obsessed with motions, accelerations and strong centrifugal moments, all in an endless variety and endless combination.”

In 1911, Dr. Sperry’s son, Lawrence, a real life “Tom Swift,” constructed his own monoplane. Now the elder Sperry renewed his interest in the gyrostabilizer, a development that pioneer aircraft builder Glenn Hammond Curtiss encouraged the Navy advocated. Dr. Sperry conceived of several small gyros to control a plane’s yaw, pitch and roll by moving the pilot’s controls. He also added a sensor to put the plane into a glide whenever its speed dropped too low. This was a breakthrough safety feature for early, underpowered aircraft.

Though his father’s gyrostabilizer was only partially complete, young Lawrence installed it in a plane and made an encouraging flight with Curtiss aboard. Then Dr. Sperry equipped another flying boat with an improved gyrostabilizer, and Navy Lieutenant Patrick Bellinger logged 58 flights in the boat. But Navy leaders still did not consider the device a substitute for the judgment and response of an experienced pilot.

At this point Dr. Sperry invented a radically improved gyrostabilizer, in which all of the gyros were mounted on a single platform that could maintain a horizontal reference position, a basic concept later used in guiding aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft.

In June 1914 at the town of Bezons, France, near Paris, Dr. Sperry entered his gyrostabilized flying boat in France’s Airplane Safety Competition. After his son Lawrence took off in it from the Seine River, the huge crowd that had gathered let out a gasp. Lawrence let go of the controls, stood up in the cockpit, and raised his hands high above his head. Then came a roar of approval as his mechanic walked far out onto the wing and the plane remained level. It was a dramatic demonstration and Dr. Sperry received the Competition’s first prize of 50,000 francs. Later he received the 1914 Collier Trophy for his great achievement.

Unfortunately, when World War I broke out, gyrostabilizers were not necessary in aerial dog fights. But the war did create an enormous demand for Dr. Sperry’s marine gyroscopic devices. He also introduced a high-powered anti-aircraft searchlight. Its groundbreaking arc light had a brilliance equal to that of a billion candles! Later they helped to fend off German air raids on London and Paris.

In 1915 Dr. Sperry, now a giant in the world of technology, was appointed to the Naval Consulting Board. Thomas Edison originally conceived this group for the purpose of utilizing America’s inventive genius for wartime Naval progress. Sperry chaired committees on Aids to Navigation and on Mines and Torpedoes and served on committees for Internal Combustion Engines and Aeronautics. At this point Sperry began the development of gyroscopic instruments for aircraft. His GyroTurn Indicator was one of the greatest safety instruments in the history of aviation, and it later would become the famed Turn and Bank Indicator. Sperry also developed an optical drift indicator, which wons for him the 1916 Collier Trophy.

In 1917 America entered the Great War that had torn Europe asunder. Dr. Sperry conceived possibly the most innovative weapon of the war, an aerial torpedo launched from a distance of up to 100 miles. This torpedo would help combat the German U-boat menace and even destroy enemy munitions plants. Under a cloak of Navy secrecy, Sperry tested full-size seaplanes transformed into automatically controlled craft. Then Curtiss and Sperry built a series of very small planes to serve as the actual aerial torpedoes. Their controls were designed to enable them to take off, fly the prescribed distance and then dive into the target with their payload of 1,000 pounds of high-powered explosives.

In March 1918 a Sperry Aerial Torpedo rose successfully from its launch pad under automatic control, made a smooth flight and dove into the water at the pre-set distance. This was the first successful guided missile flight in the world! But the war ended before the aerial torpedo could be mass-produced. However, Dr. Sperry’s revolutionary thinking had changed the face of war. Even so, Sperry did not receive recognition for his secret work until 1926, when he received the engineering profession’s John Fritz Medal. His was an achievement that placed him among the great pioneers of rocket and missile technology.

No American contributed more to technical progress during the war than Dr. Sperry, but after the war he proved himself willing and able to produce peaceful innovations. His automatic pilot for ships was a major postwar achievement. His searchlight, raised to over two billion candlepower, also found application as commercial and night flying increases. Sperry’s airway beacon, visible for up to 100 miles, marked the new night airmail routes and his airport floodlights entered wide use. By the late 1920s Dr. Sperry had firmly established his concepts of the directional gyroscope and the gyroscopic artificial horizon as basic instruments of flight. Scientifically oriented Jimmy Doolittle was the first to use these instruments in conjunction with radio beacon beams. Doolittle made aviation history in September 1929, when he accomplished the first successful “blind” takeoff, cross- country flight, and landing.

Perhaps the greatest innovation of Dr. Sperry’s gyroscopic work was his Sperry Auto-Pilot, that automatically holds a plane on any desired flight path. This device has since become standard equipment on virtually every commercial, business, and military aircraft in the world!

When Dr. Sperry died in 1930, aviation lost one of its great contributors, who had successfully adapted his extraordinary technical genius to the great challenges of flight. His attitude toward his achievements is best expressed in his own words: “Often after long periods of research, there have come great satisfactions and life takes on a new and exalted aspect. This is living! These have been my times of reward!”

For more information on Elmer Sperry, Sr., you may want to visit the following websites:

Sperry Bio
Elmer Sperry Papers
PBS Inventors
National Air and Space Museum