Celebrating 100 Years of Autopilot
Vol.5 Issue 5
(L-R) Aviation pioneer, Lawrence Sperry with French mechanic, Emil Cachin Photo Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
Sperry’s second flyby in the 1914 Paris competition. Emil is on the wing and Sperry is demonstrating "look, no hands!" Photo Historic Wings and Thomas Van Hare

Nearly 100 years ago, spectators lined the banks of the River Seine to watch the Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane (Airplane Safety Competition). Onlookers watched as two men in a Curtiss C-2 biplane flew past; the pilot astonishing the crowd by lifting his hands in the air and the other individual walking out onto the wing exhibiting the first public display of autopilot. Sperry had entered the competition thanks to his improvements with the gyrostabilizer. The device weighed less than 40 lbs. with dimensions of 18"x18"12".

In the aircraft were an unlikely pair, American aviation pioneer Lawrence Sperry and his newly hired French mechanic and assistant, Emil Cachin. Sperry didn’t speak French and Cachin hardly knew English, but they became a great team in spite of their different languages. Sperry and Lawrence won first place in the competition and immediately became famous. Their ingenuity earned them 50,000 francs ($10,000 U.S. dollars).

Sperry’s father was already known internationally as being a famous inventor and entrepreneur. Elmer A. Sperry had invented the gyrocompass which was installed on more than 30 American warships during the First World War, and was adopted by many other countries. He also created a gyro stabilizer, designed for ships to reduce the roll caused by waves during rough seas. Over time, he also built a gyro pilot system for ships’ steering and developed the first full gun battery fire control system. He was often described as the "father of modern navigation technology." He created several companies during his lifetime, including an electric, mining machine and fuse wire company. He had established the Sperry Gyroscope company, a venture that would eventually become a global technological enterprise. Who would have thought that turning a children’s toy, a gyroscope, into a business would someday result in technology that would help tackle real-world challenges.

Under the influence of his father, Lawrence Sperry developed the original aircraft gyroscopic autopilot. Modifying the concept of his father’s gyrocompass, he altered the idea to meet the needs of maintaining the 3 flight axes (pitch, roll and yaw) of the aircraft. It was a lighter, smaller version of the gyro stabilizer but based on the same principles.

A view of the Sperry autopilot installed on an early Curtiss biplane at Hammondsport, N.Y., where Lawrence received his pilot’s license in 1913 Photo Glenn H. Curtiss Museum

Lawrence Sperry eventually had 23 patents to his name, all related to aviation safety. At the time, Sperry was the youngest licensed pilot in the United States. On October 15, 1913 he received a Federal Aeronautics Pilot License (No. 11) from the Aero Club of America. He was among the first to fly at night and flew night flights regularly for the Army in 1916. Among his numerous inventions were his bank-and-turn indicator, the artificial horizon, airspeed indicator, drift indicator, seat back parachute and retractable landing gear. In 1917, he formed his own Sperry Corporation, went on to perfect the gyrostabilizer, and later developed other gyroscopic instruments. Together, father and son held more than 400 patents for new inventions across many lines of industry.

The Sperry Corporation eventually became a part of the American global IT Company, Unisys. After business mergers, some of the divisions were sold off and formed parts of other companies such as Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies and Northrop Grumman. Last year, each company had revenues of more than $30 billion.

Sperry is remembered for his outstanding contributions to flight, including the invention of instruments that continue to this day, to make flying safer and more accessible for everyone.

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