Local History

Elmer A. Sperry

Taken from an article from the Cortland Democrat, October 9, 1969

Elmer SperryWhen Elmer Ambrose Sperry at age six invented a horse radish grater for his aunt, who could have foreseen that it presaged a long life as a world-renowned inventor or that throughout his lifetime he would keep in touch with the Finger Lakes community that claims him as a native son.

Mementoes of Sperry's genius and of his rich, warm personal life are treasured by the Cortland County Historical Society and may be seen at the Society's attractive museum, Sugget House, in Cortland.

Sperry was born October 12, 1860 at the home of his maternal grandparents in Cincinnatus, where his mother died a day after his birth. As his father was employed as a carpenter at the Cortland Wagon Company, the infant was shortly taken to Cortland to be reared by an aunt, Helen Sperry Willet. Sperry grew up in Cortland and stayed there until his first big business venture took him to Chicago at the age of 19.

Sperry's creative abilities were broad and diverse coupled with tremendous productive energy - a combination which left a mark on American industry and scientific development throughout the world.

He is probably most famous for his work with the gyroscope and it has been said that "his invention of the gyro-compass that bears his name changed the world. The gyro-compass revolutionalized marine navigation and without it, long-range aviation as we know it could not exist."

Cortland was the seedbed in which was nurtured the spark that led to Sperry's ultimate achievements. It was in the shops, mills and factories of Cortland that his inventive genius began to thrive. The late Mrs. Max Higgins of Cortland once recalled that "one of Sperry's favorite pastimes as a boy was to ride on trucks delivering any kind of machinery from the railroad depot to Cortland's shops and mills. He would peer through the smallest cracks in a crate to get any possible glimpse of the fascinating machinery inside."

The stories of his early efforts are often amusing but they indicate the tenor of his great future. He never did complete a formal education. He attended Cortland Normal School and later went to Cornell University for one year as a day student.

While at Cornell, his major interest was the construction of a ring-armature dynamo. For several years this dynamo operated arc lamps that lighted the Cornell campus, said to be the first outdoor electric lighting of its kind in this country and probably anywhere.

By his 20th birthday Sperry owned his own factory in Chicago and in 1885 contracted to construct and put up one of the most spectacular electric displays seen up to that time. It was an immense beacon on top of the Board of Trade Tower in Chicago and on New Year's Eve it blazed in a dramatic display of 40,000 candle power, compared to a maximum of 3,200 seen up to that time. This really launched Sperry into the brilliant career that encompassed many facets. More than 380 patents were issued to him during his lifetime.

Related Links:

Lemelson-MIT Inventor of the Week Archives - Elmer Ambrose Sperry

National Inventors Hall of Fame - Elmer Ambrose Sperry