Elmer Ambrose Sperry (October 12, 1860 – June 16, 1930) was a prolific inventor and entrepreneur, most famous for his successful development of the gyrocompass. He also developed an electric car and a powerful arc light.
Sperry was born in Cortland, New York, to Stephen Decatur and Mary Sperry. His mother died in childbirth, and in the absence of his father, Sperry was raised by an aunt and his maternal grandparents, whose last name he took.
Anecdotes of his youth abound. He spent three years at Cortland Academy, a state normal school. Among some of the projects he undertook during his high school years that would presage his career as an inventor, were the installation of windmills, construction of a railroad tricycle that could outrun freight trains passing through Cortland, and various explosive devices that are often the hallmark of experimenting youth.
After graduating high school, he spent a year at Cornell University in 1878 and 1879, where he became interested in dynamo electricity.
While still a student, he saved enough to visit the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where he was able to view the latest electrical technology. Upon his return to Cortland, and with the financial backing of a local entrepreneur, he built a dynamo machine and an arc lamp. He then traveled briefly to Syracuse, New York, where he found facilities better adapted for the construction of his new devices. He then traveled to Chicago, where he established the Sperry Electric Company in 1880. In 1883, he was responsible for the installation of an arc lamp atop the Board of Trade tower on Lake Michigan, with claims to being the highest and most powerful beacon in the world.
Sperry married Zula Goodman in 1887. The couple had four children, one of whom, Lawrence Sperry, became an inventor in one of Sperry's companies but later died piloting an aircraft of his own design.
In 1888, as he saw larger and better-funded concerns cutting into his customer base, Sperry left the electrical industry, and in 1888, established the Sperry Electric Mining Machine Company. Through this company, he developed a way to prevent copper wire from deteriorating in the mines. Only four years later, he founded the Sperry Electric Railway Company in Cleveland, which manufactured street cars. By 1894, the company sold out its patents to General Electric, but then turned to the production of some of the first practical electric automobiles. These vehicles were said to be able to travel as far as 100 miles before requiring a recharge. Sperry also experimented with improvements to the internal combustion engine that were later used in aircraft engines.
In 1900, Sperry established an electrochemical laboratory in Washington, D.C., where he and his associate, Clifton P. Townshend, developed a process for making pure caustic soda from salt, and discovered a process for recovering tin from scrap metal. Sperry also experimented with gyroscopic compasses and stabilizers for ships and aircraft. In 1910, he started the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, New York; his first compass was tested that same year on the USS Delaware. He first offered his invention to the U.S. military, but was turned down. He then turned to Japan, where he was more favorably received. The Russians, under Czar Nicolas III, also became a customer before the Americans realized the value of Sperry's new inventions. His compasses and stabilizers were adopted by the United States Navy and used in both world wars. In 1918, he produced a high-intensity arc lamp which was used as a searchlight by both the Army and Navy. Among other projects he worked on for the military during World War I were machine guns that could easily track their targets, bomb sights, and gyroscopically guided aerial torpedoes.
In 1915, he became a founding member of the U.S. Naval Consulting Board. In 1916, he joined Peter Hewitt to develop the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, one of the first successful precursors of unmanned aerial vehicles.
During the years 1915 to 1917, he was involved in a patent fight with Herman Anschütz-Kaempfe over the invention of technology associated with the gyroscope. Sperry noted in arguing his case against Anschutz Kaempfe that that several patents had already been taken out on the technology. He also argued that as far back as 1852, Jean-Bernard-Leon Foucault, who coined the word gyroscope, had already developed much of the technology that Anschütz-Kaempfe was claiming as his own. Anschütz-Kaempfe, however, had none other than Albert Einstein as an expert witness on his behalf. He was able to win the patent battle in Germany, but Sperry proved victorious in the United States and Great Britain.
After the war, Sperry perfected aircraft navigation instruments based on the gyroscope. In the 1920s, he produced a rail car that could examine defects in iron rails.
From 1928 to 1929, Sperry served as president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Sperry sold his gyroscope company to North American Aviation Company in 1929, and formed Sperry Products in 1930. All told, Sperry set up eight companies and took out over 400 patents. He died in Brooklyn on June 12, 1930.
Sperry invented so many products that it is difficult to trace his entire influence on technology. The electric car he pioneered was overtaken by the gasoline engine, but as oil resources become scarce, historians are sure to revisit Sperry's contribution in this area.
Sperry's contribution to inertial navigation remains his most important. His inventions made it possible for aircraft to navigate without reference to a horizon or other visual cues that are often useless during poor weather. His name carried on to become one of the largest defense contractors of the twentieth century, Sperry Corporation.
Sperry's character led him to abandon entrepreneurial efforts when they were overtaken by larger companies with financial assets far greater than he could compete with. Sperry preferred to remain an inventor and innovator, rather than being swallowed up by a larger concern and losing his independence. This and a fertile inventive imagination were the cause of his founding and then abandoning so many ventures in his lifetime, a characteristic not uncommon among inventors.
The companies Sperry founded included:
These companies eventually evolved into the Sperry Corporation.
All links retrieved September 12, 2017.
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