Pictorial Collection of the Month: Elmer A. Sperry

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elmer A. Sperry (1860-1930) was an electrical engineer and inventor who founded several companies: the Electric Light, Motor, and Car Brake Company; Sperry Electric Mining Machine Company; Sperry Products, Inc.; Sperry Rail Service Company; Chicago Fuse Wire Company; Sperry Electric Railway Company; Sperry Gyroscope Company; and the Sperry Rand Corporation, later known as the Sperry Corporation!

As if that’s not impressive enough, Sperry owned 332 patents and had 48 more pending upon his death. He is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1991) and the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1973).

Sperry demonstrating one of his inventions

Sperry experimented and made improvements to the gyroscope, an eighteenth century invention which helps measure and maintain orientation. Sperry and the engineers at his various companies created a gyroscope-guided autopilot steering system, high-powered searchlights or ach lights, numerous types of indicators for aircraft, electric trolley and railroad safety mechanisms, early guided missiles and many other safety devices related to aircraft and ships. One of his most significant inventions was gyrocompass, which greatly improved naval and aviation navigation.

Sperry had four children, Edward, Lawrence, Elmer Jr. and Helen. All of his sons were involved in the business and contributed to inventions and patents.

His son Lawrence was also an aviation pioneer and is credited with inventing the autopilot. He served in World War I and contributed to the invention of aerial torpedoes. After the war he founded the Sperry Aircraft Company. His promising career ended early when he died in a plane crash at the age of thirty-one. Lawrence Sperry, like his father, is also in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Hagley has several collections related to the Sperry’s and their various enterprises.

This specific collection (1985.257) contains family photos, photographs of employees, and views of the Sperry Company's Brooklyn drafting rooms; though it mostly has images of Sperry's many inventions. The collection also consists of images that Sperry’s biographer, Thomas Hughes used in his book, Elmer Sperry: Inventor and Engineer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).

View a small sample of images from the Sperry Collection in the Hagley Digital Archives

Finding aid for the Elmer A. Sperry photograph collection

Finding aids for other Sperry related collections at Hagley

Laurie Rizzo is Assistant Curator of Hagley Library's Pictorial Collections Department.