1860, Cortland, NY
1930, Brooklyn, NY
His gyroscope-guided autopilot became known as a 'Metal Mike,' the mechanical helmsman.
Photos: Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library
A prolific inventor and businessman, Sperry engineered a gyrocompass that made piloting ships, airplanes, and even spacecraft more reliable. He formed eight different companies to produce his inventions, some still in use today.
Sperry and Companies
Elmer Ambrose Sperry is noted as the "father of modern navigation technology." Born in Cortland, New York, in 1860, Sperry was educated at the State Normal and Training School. By age 20, he had formed the first of his eight companies, the Sperry Electric Company, which made dynamos and arc lamps. Others would include: the Sperry Electric Mining Machine Company, which manufactured machines used in mining; and the Chicago Fuse Wire Company, which fabricated electric fuse wire using machines he had invented. Sperry's most successful venture would spring from the gyroscope.
On the Sea and In the Air
By the time Sperry had established himself as an accomplished inventor, a man named G. M. Hopkins had invented the first electrical gyroscope -- a disk mounted so that it remained in a fixed position despite the movements of its base. Taking the technology to the next level, Sperry engineered a gyroscope that would replace the magnetic compass, a faulty and unreliable form of navigation used on ships. In 1908, Sperry patented his new device. He founded Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, New York, two years later. His gyrocompass was first installed on the U.S. battleship Delaware in 1911. During World War I, the U.S. Navy adopted the gyrocompass for its activities. It proved so effective that it remained in use through World War II. Sperry's gyroscope technology was later applied to guide torpedoes, steer ships, and stabilize airplanes, ships and spacecraft. During both world wars, Sperry's company profited as military demand for its technological devices soared. Sperry diversified into aircraft components including bombsights, fire control systems, radar systems, and automated take off and landing systems.
By the time of his death in 1930, Sperry held more than 400 patents. In 1933, the Sperry Gyroscope Company would become the Sperry Corporation, which manufactured computers, precision instruments and controls, farm machinery, and electric and hydraulic equipment. After multiple mergers and takeovers, the company today is part of technology giant Unisys.