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ELMER AMBROSE SPERRY
The Gyroscopic Compass
Elmer Ambrose Sperry is one of the foremost inventor-entrepreneurs
of American history. He founded 8 companies and earned more
than 350 patents, most notably for the gyroscopic compass.
Born in Cortland, New York, in 1860, Sperry was educated
at the local State Normal and Training School. There, he already
displayed the "Yankee ingenuity" that would make him famous.
By 1890, he had founded two companies. In that year, G.M.
Hopkins invented the first electrically driven gyroscope.
A gyroscope is a disk mounted on a base in such a way that
the disk can spin freely on its X- and Y-axes; that is, the
disk will remain in a fixed position in whatever directions
the base is moved. Hopkins' modification, as Sperry and others
saw, made practical the possibility that the gyroscope, once
a mere curiosity, could be turned into a reliable reference
device in steel ships, where a standard magnetic compass was
After years of work, Sperry produced a workable gyrocompass
system (1908: patent #1,242,065), and founded the Sperry Gyroscope
Company. The unit was adopted by the US Navy (1911), and played
a major role in World War I. The Navy also began using Sperry's
"Metal Mike": the first gyroscope-guided autopilot steering
system. In the following decades, these and other Sperry devices
were adopted by steamships such as the Queen Mary, airplanes,
and the warships of World War II. In fact, after his death
in 1930, the Navy named the USS Sperry after him.
Along the way, Sperry had invented and patented a wide range
of devices, including electric trolley cars, high-intensity
searchlights, dynamos, and railroad safety devices. After
his death, Sperry's company expanded into electronics -- a
move he would have appreciated. Still, Elmer Ambrose Sperry
himself will best be remembered as the father of modern navigation
Graphics courtesy of Sperry Marine Inc. To
visit their site, and to read about Elmer Sperry's work and
the later history of his companies, go to http://www.sperry-marine.com/pages/history.htm.