Elmer Ambrose Sperry

Elmer Ambrose Sperry was born on October 12, 1860, in Cortland, New York. He showed an early interest in mechanics and electrics and in 1876, with a partial sponsorship from the local YMCA, he visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition where he admired the inventions and technological wizardry of the time. After high school he studied at Cornell University but did not finish his degree. At the age of 19 he developed an electric arc light system containing an electrical regulator which he had invented himself. In 1880, at the age of 20 he moved to Chicago and founded the Sperry Electric Company to produce and sell his arc light system. Although the product was eminently suitable for street lighting, his company could not compete with competitors which were better managed and financed, and after five years his company went under.

Being a brilliant inventor, Sperry started many companies for his different inventions, like the Sperry Electric Mining company, the Sperry Electric Railway Company (for electric streetcars and their components), and even a separate company for doing what he did best: research and development. During his life his numerous inventions were protected by more than 400 patents.

The Gyroscope

Sperry would become well-known for his gyroscope, the gyroscopic compass and the auto-pilot system used in airplanes, torpedoes, etc. The gyroscope is a disk mounted in such a way that it can spin freely on its X- and Y-axes and will remain in a fixed position. Although the principle was well-known, Sperry turned it from a mere scientific toy into a reliable device which could be used in a steel ship or submarine where a magnetic compass obviously didn’t work. In 1910 he founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company to produce the gyroscope and his gyrocompass system. That same year his gyrocompass system was tested successfully on the battleship Delaware following which the US Navy adopted his system for its fleet. During World War I many of his inventions were used by the navies of many Western countries.

For his work on the gyroscope, the gyroscopic compass and the gyroscope-guided automatic pilot steering system, Sperry has been honoured by a USA airmail stamp, issued on February 13, 1985. The stamp also features his son Lawrence who was a famous aviator and an inventor in his own right. The plane in the stamp design (by Howard Koslow) is an early amphibious flying boat, built by Lawrence Sperry, but utilizing many of Elmer Sperry’s inventions.

The USS Sperry (AS 12)

The American Navy, which had used so many of Sperry’s inventions and devices during and after World War I, honoured him by naming the submarine tender USS Sperry (AS-12) after him. The USS Sperry was launched on December 17, 1942, just 10 days after Pearl Harbour, and has been in operation for forty years. She was decommissioned on September 30, 1982.

Navy personnel, like the Commanding Officer of the USS Sperry, enjoy free franking privilege while on official business.

Sperry Corporation becomes Sperry Rand becomes Unisys

Following Elmer Sperry’s death on June 12, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, his eight separate companies were merged into one to form the Sperry Corporation in 1933. In 1955 the Sperry Corporation with an annual sales of $441 million – predominantly in defence-related sales - merged with Remington Rand (annual sales $225 million) and continued as Sperry Rand Corporation – In 1978 it reverted back to its old name Sperry Corporation. The merger gave the Sperry company access to computer technology as Remington Rand had been the manufacturer of the Univac (UNIVersal Automatic Computer) computers. Even more important, it gave the Sperry company, which had been highly successful during World War II through its contracts with the US military, access to other government departments and a civilian customer base in a post-war environment. With it came a distribution system for their multitude of goods and services. The computer division operated under the name Sperry Univac within the Sperry Corporation.

Although Sperry Univac’s computers had a very good reputation, it formed only a relatively small division within the new corporation. Even worse – IBM’s computer sales was growing at a much faster rate than Sperry Univac’s. As IBM had a much narrower product line, combined with an excellent marketing strategy, IBM was gaining ground rapidly and in the end Sperry could not keep up with Big Blue, as IBM was known in the industry. In 1986 the Sperry Corporation merged with Burroughs – another struggling computer manufacturer – and formed Unisys which continues today to produce large computer systems for the corporate market.

Sperry’s name still lives on in the Sperry Marine company, a leading supplier of gyrocompasses and other navigation and automation systems for the marine and naval markets.

I came across this Sperry Marine sign during a 2008 tour of Israel. Despite the loudly voiced objections by my tour guide I couldn't resist taking a picture of this part of a military checkpoint in the river Jordan valley.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2007

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