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, on October 12, 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 unreliable.

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 U.S. 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 technology.