Published on August 30, 2012
Lawrence Sperry was a remarkable man born of a remarkable family. An inventor like his father, Lawrence’s greatest achievement was taking one of his father’s most famous inventions, the gyro-compass, and developing an automatic flight control system that he dubbed an “autopilot”. Put simply, the Sperry autopilot corrected an aircraft’s heading based on deviations detected with the gyro-compass and an automated link between the heading and altitude information and the manipulation of the controls. What is remarkable is that the Sperry autopilot was invented in 1912 when airplanes were still in their infancy, unstable and underpowered things of wire, wood and linen. By 1913, Sperry was hard at work taking the patent from the drawing board to an airplane — and on this day in aviation history, August 30, 1913, the Sperry Autopilot made its first successful test flight. Lawrence Sperry’s invention would go on to change aviation and flying for all time.
Lawrence Sperry’s Background
Lawrence Sperry was the third son of one of America’s most prolific inventors. His father, Elmer Sperry, would file over 400 individual patents during his lifetime, more than twice the number of the famed inventor Thomas Edison. Together, the father and son would not only make extraordinary inventions, but as well take them forward all the way to manufacturing and sales in companies they owned and operated. Through the Sperry Corporation and a half dozen others, many of which still exist today, a whole range of technical applications were manufactured. The entire network of companies and development centers were managed from the company’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, where the family lived.
Even as a young man, Lawrence Sperry was interested in aviation. At 15 years of age in the year 1909, he had attended an airshow at Mineola, New York, and seen a French Voisin-type aircraft. They studied the aircraft carefully, noting how the wings were made, how the engine was mounted, how the tail was affixed, the wires strung and connected — everything. Shortly afterward, his parents left him and his brother alone when they went out to Long Island for a long summer holiday. While they were away, relying on their recollection, some hand drawings and their own notes, the two young Sperry boys built their own version of the Voisin in the basement of their home. To achieve that was no simple matter. In fact, they had to first design and build their own steam box for warping the wood pieces for wing ribs and other components, then create their own jigs for wing construction.
It was a difficult challenge, but they built a complete airplane from scratch, inventing construction techniques and applying ones they already understanding in different ways. The kids were smart, but still inexperienced — they discovered near the end of the project that they couldn’t fit the wings out of the basement where they had done the work. Undaunted, they proceeded to make modifications to the home, cutting away part of a bay window so as to make a wide enough gap to take the wings out into the yard for assembly. Lacking an engine, the plane flew its first flight as a glider with Lawrence at the controls, his brother driving a car with a tow line attached. Pulling it aloft, they reached 150 feet of altitude before the tow line unexpectedly snapped. This left the completely novice teenage pilot with the sudden necessity of teaching himself to fly and land their untested airplane “on the fly”, so to speak. He survived it by executing a landing straight ahead into a cloud of dust. After he explained the house modifications to his father, he went on to take proper flying lessons and soon become a very skilled aviator.
The First Flight of the Autopilot
By 1913, young Lawrence Sperry — now just 19 years old — was hard at work on his first “gyroscopic automatic stabilizing device,” a device later called an autopilot. On April 28, 1913, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral Victor Blue, approved Sperry’s proposal to the Navy Department that a test of the gyroscopic stabilizer system be attempted. The project was a joint venture between Glenn Curtiss and the Sperry Company, headed by Sperry. It involved a new Curtiss C-2 flying boat, a preferred aircraft in use by the US Navy. As the summer months progressed, Sperry was at work mounting and testing the system.
On August 30 at Hammondsport, New York, the project came together — the day marked the first successful Sperry autopilot test and had a veteran US Navy pilot, Lt. Patrick N. L. Bellinger, at the controls. Bellinger took off in his autopilot-equipped C-2 flying boat and, once at altitude, switched the device on while Lawrence Sperry observed from below. Then he removed his hands from the controls and sat back in the seat. Exactly as it was designed to do, the Sperry Autopilot took over and kept the plane on the desired heading, flying it perfectly ahead without need of his manipulation of the controls. The development was stunning.
Although Sperry’s innovation was revolutionary, his reception in the United States proved to be somewhat muted — at least outside of Naval circles which predictably showed great interest. Perhaps this was in large part because of Lawrence Sperry’s father’s connections. Those were solid, as Elmer Sperry had pioneered the revolutionary gyro-compass that the US Navy was using in 30 of its warships. While he would continuously pursue Navy contracts, Sperry instead took his gyro-stabilizing apparatus to France to demonstrate it to the Europeans, hoping to gain more commercial interest.
Sperry’s European Debut
He chose his European debut carefully. On June 18, 1914, crowds lined the banks of the Seine in Paris to see the Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane (a meet designed to demonstrate new safety devices for aircraft). Lawrence Sperry was on hand with his autopilot-equipped Curtiss C-2 flying boat. Sperry’s father and mother, Zuma, traveled along to support the young man — for Elmer Perry, he was there also to ensure that all business deals were handled properly. Amongst the field of 57 entrants — the best of Europe’s latest technical innovations — most thought that the young “Americain” and his design would not be much competition. Reading the description of Sperry’s device, to put it mildly, left onlookers in disbelief. Surely, a plane could not fly by mechanical means. They were wrong.
Sperry took off with a French mechanic on board by the name of Emil Cachin. Meanwhile, a firemen’s band from Bezons and Argenteuil played “The Star Spangled Banner” in a salute to the American entrant. His autopilot engaged, Sperry flew by the grandstands with both his hands up in the air. The crowd was shocked, shouting “Extraordinaire!” and “Formidable!” Could a plane fly itself by a mechanical system alone? Or were they just trimmed out to fly straight and level and the device really wasn’t doing much? The crowd awaited the next pass to try to work out what was actually happening.
Sperry also realized that a single hands-off flying wasn’t enough to truly demonstrate his invention’s full capabilities. For his next pass, he flew by with his hands in the air as Emil Cachin climbed out onto the wing. The crowd, including members of the influential Ligue Nationale Aérienne de France, could clearly see the autopilot at work addressing the imbalance. As Emil went out, the plane banked toward his weight, but then the autopilot took over and brought it back into level flight, even compensating for the slight turn to put it back on heading. The crowd went wild with applause as the firemen abandoned their rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and instead broke into a joyous playing of France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”
Yet this was still not enough of a demonstration for Sperry. He came around for a third pass to demonstrate the absolute trust he had in his “stabilisateur gyroscopique”, as he called it in French. This last time, the crowd was stunned to see not only Emil standing out on one wing, but Sperry on the other, having abandoned the cockpit completely. Nobody was flying the plane — just the autopilot. As the plane flew past the grandstand, the two men waved at the crowd cheerfully as if they were on a Sunday pleasure cruise. The event’s chief judge, René Quinton, murmured, “Mais, c’est inoui!” (‘But that’s unheard of!’).
Later in the day Sperry demonstrated the device to Commandant Joseph Barrès of the French Air Force. This time he showed that the plane could take off and land just by autopilot as well. It was a feat that so amazed the Ligue that Sperry came away with the prize of 50,000 French Francs (at that time worth about $10,000, an amount that equates to approximately $225,000 today based on inflation). His introduction of the technology to Europe had been a complete success.
Back in America
A week later, the New York Times covered Sperry’s triumph, predictably with less enthusiasm. The article noted that Sperry had won the prize but also presented the news on their editorial page. That way, the editors could clearly state their own opinion on the relative importance of the invention in harsh terms — “Of stability commonly understood, no heavier than air flight vehicles will ever have even as much as that dreadfully fragile monster, the dirigible.” Clearly, the Times writers weren’t much impressed with either type of aerial conveyance.
Over the next four years of war, the New York Times would be proven wrong in virtually every aspect of its opinion. Airplanes would come of age, dirigibles would become terror weapons that carried out long range bombing runs against London, and passenger air travel would start to link cities, instead of being merely show flights carrying a first time passenger around a field as a form of entertainment. The US Navy would contract with Sperry in May 1916 to develop a gyroscopically-operated, bomb-dropping sighting system. In September 1916, his gyro system became the basis a Naval missile guidance system, mounted in a winged aircraft that was meant to be launched at and crashed into a distant target. Then, in 1918, Sperry joined with Charles Kettering to produce the Kettering Aerial Torpedo, better known as the “Kettering Bug” — it was the world’s first cruise missile with a range of 40 miles.
The first man to fly in a Sperry autopilot aircraft, Navy Lt. Patrick N. L. Bellinger, would go on to pilot the Curtiss NC-1 for the world’s first successful trans-Atlantic crossing in 1918. Over the years, Bellinger and many other pilots would take to calling the Sperry Autopilot system “George” — a colloquialism for the seemingly magical, invisible copilot that had joined them in the cockpit of their aircraft. To this day, the term “George” is used unofficially to represent the autopilot system.
Lawrence Sperry’s Final Flight
Lawrence Sperry’s reliance on his autopilot was absolute. Sadly, it would be his undoing. Sperry failed to truly appreciate that he was flying in an era when instrument flying was not yet fully developed. Few instruments and navigational aids were available to effectively aid a pilot flying in the clouds — indeed, Jimmy Do0little’s first instrument-based blind flying experiments were undertaken only in 1929. Nonetheless, Sperry took off into the fog for a crossing of the English Channel on December 23, 1923 — no doubt, he planned on relying on his autopilot to get him through. He never arrived in France for his Christmas holiday. It wasn’t until three weeks later, on January 11, 1924, that his remains were found floating in the English Channel. It was a sad end for a truly extraordinary aviator and inventor.
One More Bit of Aviation History
Lawrence Sperry was known as quite a ladies’ man and had a penchant for wild parties — he was single, handsome and wealthy, a potent combination. Even there, his autopilot had a role — and one day in November 1916 he demonstrated his trust in the system when he took a married socialite, Mrs. Waldo Polk, for a training flight offshore near Babylon, New York. Turning over the controls to his autopilot, the two proceeded to engage in something of an aerial tryst. Mrs. Polk’s husband was away in France volunteering for France as an ambulance driver during the war, leaving her “unattended” and, with the wealthy Lawrence Sperry close at hand, she decided to take up flying lessons.
The day didn’t end well when Sperry accidentally bumped the gyro platform while “involved” with Mrs. Polk. The seaplane then flew a descending curve dictated by the misaligned gyro instead of staying on course. It crashed into the waters of the bay. Luckily, two duck hunters were nearby and paddled over to rescue the naked pair. Initially, Sperry maintained that the force of impact had ripped off their clothes. However, his reputation as something of a playboy lead one tabloid to run the more accurate headline, “AERIAL PETTING – ENDS IN WETTING”. Later, Sperry would confide to a friend that the story was accurate. Mrs. Polk ultimately qualified for her pilot certificate — without any further autopilot incidents.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
How are gyroscopes used in space to control the spacecraft’s attitude relative to the Earth?