Lawrence Sperry: The Man Who Made The World’s First Autopilot

Over a century ago, the first successful autopilot was developed. Chicago-born aviation pioneer Lawrence Sperry was the person behind the breakthrough, helping to change the course of aviation forever. The inventor also knew how to demonstrate his creations!

Lawrence Sperry and His PlaneLawrence Sperry and His Plane
Lawrence Sperry made history when his aircraft landed on the Capitol’s plaza in Washington D.C. on March 22nd, making it the first plane to do so. Photo: Getty Images

An aviation mainstay

In summary, an autopilot is a device used to guide a plane without direct assistance from the pilot. These systems have developed along the way, but most modern aircraft rely on some sort of autopilot technology. Presently, the arrangements can be complex with state-of-the-art processes. However, we had to start somewhere, and the current methods stem from the early breakthroughs.

“Early autopilots were only able to maintain a constant heading and altitude, but modern autopilots are capable of controlling every part of the flight envelope from just after take-off to landing,” SKYbrary highlights.

“Modern autopilots are normally integrated with the flight management system (FMS) and, when fitted, the autothrottle system.”

Portrait of Elmer Sperry
Lawrence Sperry was born on December 21st, 1892, as the son of legendary inventor and entrepreneur, Elmer Ambrose Sperry (pictured), who was the gyrocompass co-inventor. Photo: Getty Images

A family business

Sperry helped to get the ball rolling when he connected his father’s gyroscopic heading indicator to a rudder and hydraulically-operated elevators. He dubbed the innovation an autopilot, but Scandinavian Traveler shares that it later became known in the aviation industry as ‘George.’

Notably, the Sperry family would file more than 400 separate patents. Like his father, the son had a passion for aviation as a youngster. Even by the time he was 19 years old, he was already working on systems to aid the progress of flight.

Sperry understood the massive potential with the invention. Therefore, who opted to showcase it in Europe at an aircraft exhibition in Paris on June 18th, 1914. There was a sizeable audience at the Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane (Airplane Safety Competition) on the banks of the Seine. There were 57 specially equipped aircraft competing that day. However, Sperry’s entry was the only participant fitted with a gyroscopic stabilizer apparatus, which was designed to improve stability and control.

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The big day

According to Aviation History via HistoryNet, the device was mounted on a single-engine Curtiss C-2 biplane with a hydroplane fuselage. Emil Cachin, Sperry’s new mechanic and assistant was flying with him that day. With Cachin being French, the pair may have had struggles to communicate, but they made a great team.

Subsequently, the aircraft flew down the river, and Sperry engaged his stabilizer directly in front of the judges. He then disentangled himself from the shoulder yoke that handled the plane’s ailerons and “passed in review with both his arms held high.” With the C-2 continuing on its course steadily with no hands on the controls, the members of the crowd were ecstatic.

Nonetheless, the show wasn’t over yet. On the second pass, Cachin climbed out on the starboard wing and shifted approximately seven feet away from the fuselage. Sperry’s hands were still away from the controls at this time, and as his crewmate moved out on the wing, the plane momentarily banked amid the weight shift. Nevertheless, the gyroscope-equipped stabilizer swiftly took over and corrected the attitudinal change. The C-2 then smoothly continued on its course.

The crowd was in disbelief, but Sperry and Cachin still weren’t done. As the pair passed the reviewing stand, they were each stood on opposite wings while the pilot’s seat was empty! The crowd and the judges were left almost speechless at the sight.

Aviation Pioneer
A proud with his Sperry Messenger biplane in November 1923. Photo: Getty Images

Paving the way

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that Sperry won the competition that day. As a result, the future of flying was written in stone.

“I mean they were fundamental to all flying. A lot of people made gyroscopes but Sperry was right at the beginning,” says Graham Rood, a retired aviation engineer, as reported by CNBC.

″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.”

Sperry’s initial aircraft gyroscopic autopilot was a smaller and lighter variant of the gyro stabilizer, based on similar principles. The Sperry corporation went on to develop other gyroscopic instruments, including the artificial horizon and the heading indicator. These systems are still fitted into many current aircraft.

The father and son outfit held hundreds of patents across numerous industries. Though, gyroscopes are their most noted in the world of aviation.

Pilot Posing By His Plane
The Sperry Gyroscope Company formed an unpiloted aircraft (not pictured) that could fly to a target guided by the Sperry gyroscopic device, but the notion was ahead of its time as the concept would be revisited in later decades. Photo: Getty Images

A legacy left

By the time 1923 drew to a close, Sperry had a wealth of flying experience, with over 4,000 hours of flight time. He was also fully trained to fly by only instruments. Therefore, he was comfortable flying whatever the weather with his well-equipped personal aircraft. However, in December 1923, he sadly wouldn’t make it across the English Channel on a flight from the United Kingdom to France.

There was heavy fog across the water and the aviator fell somewhere along the way. There may have been a mechanical failure or there could have been struggles to navigate through the tough conditions. Sperry’s body was found in the water on January 11th, 1924.

The pioneer was just 31 years of age when he passed. Yet, he already had 23 patents in regard to aircraft safety under his belt. He would have undoubtedly contributed to even more innovations had his life not been cut short. Nonetheless, in his time, he still managed to break significant ground.

What are your thoughts about Lawrence Sperry and his contribution to the world of aviation? Is there any other pioneer that you’d like us to cover in the future? Let us know what your thoughts are on these early achievements in the comment section.