Elmer Ambrose Sperry

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(b. Cortland County, New York, 21 October 1860; d Brooklyn, New York, 16 June 1930)

technology, engineering.

The son of Mary Burst, a schoolteacher, and Stephen Sperry, a farmer, Sperry was raised by his Baptist grandparents after his mother died in child-birth. He later moved from their farm to the village of Cortland and attended the normal school, where the professors interested him in applied science. A visit to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, regular reading of Scientific American and the patent abstracts in the Official Gazette, and the publicity then given to such inventors as Thomas Edison persuaded Sperry to embark upon a career as an inventor and an engineer.

Cortland capitalists with Chicago affiliations helped Sperry to develop a generator and an arc light and, in 1882, to found his own company in Chicago to market them. Among the prominent Chicagoans who backed him was the president of the first University of Chicago. When the company demanded too much routine engineering, Sperry withdrew in 1888 to found his own invention and development company. For the next two decades, in Chicago, Cleveland, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York, he was successful as an independent inventor concentrating successively upon the electric streetcar, mining machinery, the automobile, and industrial chemistry. Sperry was particularly adept at identifying critical problems, especially those of automatic control, in rapidly expanding areas of technology and in defining with clarity and force his inventive responses—and his patents.

Sperry investigated gyro applications in 1907, stimulated by reports from Germany of Ernst Otto Schlick’s gyrostabilizer and Hermann Anschütz’s gyrocompass for ships. He committed himself fully to the field after the United States navy adopted his improved gyrocompass, used his gyrostabilizer, and tested his airplane stabilizer. Before World War I, Sperry founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company, which was to become a world-renowned small research and development firm, staffed by resourceful young development engineers and specializing in complex technology and precision manufacture.

During World War I, Sperry, after Edison, was the most active member of the Naval Consulting Board, an early effort to organize science and technology for the military-industrial needs of wartime. Later, Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams said of Sperry, “No one American has contributed so much to our naval technical progress.”

During the postwar decade Sperry emerged as a leader in the engineering profession and was elected president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, chairman of the Division of Engineering and Industrial Research of the National Research Council, and member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a major advocate of industrial research, symbolizing for many the transition of America from the era of heroic invention to that of industrial science. Only after his death, and after guidance and automatic control became a major field of science and technology popularized by the concepts of automation and cybernetics, was Sperry’s role as a pioneer recognized. The widespread adoption of the Sperry automatic ship pilot, and later the Sperry automatic airplane pilot, further enhanced his reputation. An analysis of his 350 patents reveals his consistent focus upon automatic controls, even in diverse fields of endeavor.

Sperry’s sons, Edward, Lawrence, and Elmer, Jr., joined their father at the Sperry Gyroscope Company.


I. Original Works. On Sperry’s gyrostabilizer, gyrocompass, and automatic ship pilot, see especially his articles in Transactions of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 18 (1910), 143–154; 20 (1912), 201–215; 21 (1913), 181–187; 23 (1915), 43–48; 24 (1916), 207–214; 25 (1917), 293–299; 27 (1919), 99–108; and 30 (1922), 53–57. His other articles and patents are listed in the first two references below.

II. Secondary Literature. See Thomas Parke Hughes, Elmer Ambrose Sperry: Inventor and Engineer (Baltimore, 1971); and J. C. Hunsaker, “Biographical Memoir of Elmer Ambrose Sperry, 1860–1930,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 28 (1954), 223–260. See also Preston R. Bassett, “Elmer A. Sperry,” in Nassau County Historical Journal, 21 (Fall 1960).

Thomas Parke Hughes