Just over a 100 years ago here in Paris two
men flew in a bi-plane from Pont de Bezons,
a bridge 4.5km that way to
this bridge Pont d’Argenteuil.
As the plane flew along the River Seine lined
with spectators, one pilot put his hands in the air,
while the other walked out onto the wing,
and yet the plane continued to fly level.
It was the first public demonstration of autopilot, an
innovation that changed the aviation world forever.
In the plane that day
were these two men.
French mechanic Emil Cachin and
American aviation pioneer Lawrence Sperry.
Sperry was the son of the famous
inventor and entrepreneur Elmer A. Sperry,
often referred to as the “father of
modern navigation technology.”
Elmer Sperry formed eight
companies over his lifetime,
including an electric, mining
machine and fuse wire company.
But arguably Sperry’s greatest creations
were his versions of the gyroscope,
turning a children’s toy into useable technology
to help tackle real-world problems.
There was a lot of demand within the
maritime industry for an instrument
that could replace the unreliable
magnetic compass within steel ships.
The German inventor Hermann Anschutz-Kaempfe
patented the first workable gyro compass in 1908,
and Sperry developed
his own shortly after.
It was the first creation from what was initially
called the Sperry Gyroscope Company,
his business that grew to become a
global technological powerhouse.
Over this period, Sperry also developed a
gyro pilot system for ship’s steering and
and built the first full gun
battery fire control system.
After reportedly suffering from sea sickness
on an earlier Atlantic voyage, he also designed
a gyroscope that stabilized ships by reducing the roll
caused by waves, particularly during rough conditions.
However, it was in aviation that Elmer’s
gyro stabilizer reached new heights.
“A great many great men have contributed to aviation
purely as specialists, Sperry one of the greatest.”
In 1914, the world got to see a
plane on autopilot for the first time
when Laurence showcased his smaller
and lighter version of the gyro stabilizer,
the original gyroscopic autopilot.
While this controlled the surfaces of the
aircraft to maintain straight and level flight,
the basic principles
were the same.
Think of a gyroscope
as a spinning top.
When stationary, it falls over, but when spun
at speed, it’s able to retain its position.
This is known as the conservation
of angular momentum.
Now imagine the spinning
top as a wheel or disc,
attached in some cases to many other
moving parts such as gimbals.
The angular momentum of the spinning
rotor causes it to maintain its position
even when the gimbal
assembly is tilted.
The idea of the gyroscopic autopilot is that the
three axes of an aircraft, yaw, pitch and roll
could be harnessed to the stability
of a spinning gyroscope
which could maintain an
airplane’s original orientation.
This was done by linking the control surfaces
of the aircraft with three gyroscopes
that were designed to maintain a zero setting
unless the pilot took over the controls.
This allowed flight corrections to be introduced
based on the angle of deviation
between the flight direction and
the original gyroscopic settings.
To see these gyroscopes in person I’ve
come to Farnborough, a town in the U.K.
It’s a historic aeronautical science site
responsible for the development of equipment
such as the first airborne cameras
and high-altitude space suits.
It also conducted the first
carbon fibre experiments.
Hi Graham, how’s it going?
Morning, welcome to FAST.
Graham Rood is a retired aviation scientist and engineer
who collects and archives aviation gyroscopes.
We’ve got quite a large collection
of Gyros over the years.
The very early ones were powered
by pressured air through there
and that spun up the gyro
like that at high speed.
Once you’ve set the gyro up in a particular
direction, every time there’s a movement
you can correct it because you can sense
the movement with other sensors
and the gyro is basically
the controlling system.
I mean they were fundamental to all flying.
Clever man, clever man, good use of technology.
Any of these gyros built
by the Sperry family?
We don’t have any in here but we do have
some down in the reserve collection.
While gyroscopes were Elmer’s and
Laurence’s most successful venture
they continued to create a wide
variety of equipment and machinery.
In total, they held more than 400 patents for new
inventions across several different industries.
This is the one where we have
some of the Sperry work in.
We store it all here,
everything is numbered.
And you can see how
beautifully made it is.
This was probably 60s or
70s, something like that.
You see Sperry Gyroscope, these
were some of the gyros of the time.
Sperry Gyroscope Company.
Of course, a lot of people made gyroscopes
but Sperry was right at the beginning.
So this is artificial horizon.
That’s where your airplane is, so that’s the wings
and you can see the horizon moves around.
And they always have this lovely
little, “Do not jar handle my eggs.”
Sadly, Laurence Sperry died in a plane
accident in the English Channel in 1923,
and his father Elmer passed
away seven years later.
Their legacy, however, lives on
in today’s aviation industry.
Well, I think for engineers and certainly people
who can look back and understand history,
they were real giants of aviation and
that’s how they should be remembered.
After their deaths, the Sperry Gyroscope Company
became a subsidiary of the new Sperry Corporation.
The new company immediately set to work on
the development of two flight instruments.
These were the Directional Gyro, now known
as the Heading Indicator,
which tells the pilot the direction
the aircraft is heading
and the Gyro Horizon, now
known as the Artificial Horizon,
which informs the pilot of the aircraft’s
position relative to the earth’s horizon.
They were tested in 1929 in what was the first
recorded flight in history using only instruments.
Jimmy Doolittle, in association with the
Sperry company, tackled the problem.
I made the first blind flight but out of that came two
instruments, the artificial horizon and directional gyro
that are today standard equipment on every commercial
airplane and every combat military airplane.
How do you do, Tom?
Good, nice to meet you.
And you, and you.
Paul Heaver is a retired
British Airways pilot.
His career spanned 44 years
and yet gyroscopic instruments
were as important on his last
flight as they were on his first.
It is an essential part of the information
that you receive as a pilot
on the attitude and the manner
in which the airplane is flying.
When one starts training in the first place
you fly visual flight rules where you’re
looking out the window most of the time etc,
and then you progress to learning how to fly
on instruments and so the information that you
get provided by gyroscopes, artificial horizons,
turn and slips, is
And even today, certainly on the 747-400
there will be stand by instruments.
How important was
autopilot during your career?
I can remember on one occasion, I went to put the
autopilot in and we couldn’t get the autopilot in.
And so we had to hand fly this
airplane from Perth to Singapore
which was about five and half hours but
it was just tedious, it was just boring.
So, with an autopilot that’s all taken care of and
you can just monitor what is actually going on.
You don’t have to look far to see the impact the Sperrys
had on today’s aviation and technology industries.
The Sperry Corporation has contributed to the
development of some of the world’s biggest companies.
After a series of corporate mergers, Sperry
Corporation eventually became a part of
the American global
IT company, Unisys.
Following the merger, some of its former divisions
were sold off and have gone on to form parts of
Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, United
Technologies and finally Northrop Gruman.
Last year each company had
revenues of more than $30 billion.
And the Sperry name continues to live on in the
Northrop Grumman-owned company Sperry Marine.
It’s a global supplier of navigation, communication
and automation systems for the marine industry.
From shipping to computers, the Sperry Corporation’s
influence can be felt across multiple industries.
But it’s in aviation, through the original
Sperry Gyroscope Company,
that Elmer and his son Laurence left a
legacy of invention and engineering
that continues to be relevant and effective
even in today’s digital economy.
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