Young Lawrence Sperry building his homemade Voisin aircraft, 1909. Credit: NASA
As a young man, Lawrence Sperry was very interested in aviation. At age 15 in the year 1909, he attended an airshow at Mineola, New York, and saw a French Voisin aircraft. While their parents were away on holiday, Lawrence and his brother built their own version of the Voisin in the basement of their home. Lacking an engine, the plane flew as a glider with Lawrence at the controls, his brother driving a car with a tow line attached. Lawrence 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 the untested airplane. He survived it by executing a landing straight ahead into a cloud of dust.
Sperry autopilot system installed on an early Curtiss biplane, 1913. Credit: Historic Wing
Sperry poses with a Curtiss C2 Biplane installed with his autopilot, 1914. Credit: Historic Wing
Lawrence Sperry was the third son of one of America’s most prolific inventors. His father, Elmer Sperry, would file over 400 patents during his lifetime. He was the inventor of the gyro-compass, a massive device that was installed on more than 30 American warships, practical only for marine use at the time. Lawrence took the idea of the gyro-compass and applied it to aircraft. Shrinking it in size and developing an automatic flight control system that he dubbed “autopilot”. Its purpose was to improve stability and control of an aircraft utilizing inputs from several instruments to allow an aircraft to automatically maintain a desired compass heading and altitude.
By 1913 at age 19, Sperry was hard at work taking his patent from the drawing board to an airplane and on August 30, 1913, the Sperry autopilot system made its first successful test flight. 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. Sperry’s “gyroscopic automatic stabilizing device” would go on to change aviation and flying for all time.
Crowd surrounds a C2 biplane in Paris, June 1914. Credit: Historic Wing
Second flyby in Paris. Emil on the wing, Sperry with hands raised. Credit: Historic Wing
In 1914 Sperry travelled to France to demonstrate the capabilities of his autopilot system at the Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane in Paris, a meet designed to demonstrate new safety devices for aircraft. Flying an autopilot equipped Curtiss C-2 flying boat, Sperry passed by the crowd with both his hands up in the air. On his second pass, he flew by with his hands in the air as mechanic Emil Cachin climbed out onto the wing. As Emil went out, the plane banked toward his weight, but the autopilot took over and brought it back into level flight, even compensating for the slight turn to put it back on heading. On his third pass, demonstrating the absolute trust he had in his “stabilisateur gyroscopique”, as he called it in French, Sperry stood out on one wing while Emil stood on the other, abandoning the cockpit completely. It was a feat that so amazed the crowd that Sperry came away with the prize of 50,000 Francs ($10,000.)