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Elmer Ambrose Sperry papers

Creation: 1876-1931
Accession: 1893


Elmer Sperry (1860-1930) was one of America’s electric pioneers. He founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company in order to develop, manufacture, and market marine gyrostabilizing devices. The papers document Sperry's research and development work and entrepreneurial activities.


  • Creation: 1876-1931



27 Linear Feet

Biographical Note

Elmer Sperry (1860-1930) was one of America’s electric pioneers. He founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company in order to develop, manufacture, and market marine gyrostabilizing devices. Elmer A. Sperry was born on October 12, 1860, in Cortland, New York. He attended the local elementary schools and then enrolled in Cornell University. At Cornell, he developed an interest in electrical engineering and began working with a group of Syracuse industrialists in order to construct an arc lighting system. By 1882 Sperry was recognized as being one of America's electrical pioneers.

In 1883 Sperry moved to Chicago where he established the Electric Light, Motor, and Car Brake Company. He, however, found that he could notcompete with the more established Edision and Brush Electric companies so he began experimenting with electric coal-mining equipment. In l886 he founded the Sperry Electric Mining Machine Company. During these years Sperry also developed an electric street car. After selling his patents to General Electric, he went to work for the company as a consultant.

In 1901 Sperry became associated with a young patent examiner, Clifton Townsend, and the two men worked together to develop an electrolytic process to manufacture white lead. Sperry and Townsend opened a production plant in Niagara Falls, New York, which was sold to Elon Hooker's (1869-1938) Development and Funding Company.

In 1907 Sperry began to experiment with the gyroscope. Three years later, he founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, New York. Working closely with the Navy, he developed the gyrocompass, ship stabilizer, and high-intensity search light. During the First World War, the Sperry Gyroscope Company became a major defense contractor, and Elmer Sperry sat on the Naval Consulting Board. After the war, Sperry Gyroscope moved into aeronautics as it developed airplane stabilizers, gyrostabilized bombsights, and the aerial torpedo. Elmer Sperry died on June l6, l930.

Scope and Content

The Elmer Sperry papers document Sperry's research and development work and entrepreneurial activities. The Chicago-Cleveland records describe his efforts to develop arc lighting systems, stationary power, electric mining machinery, and electric traction technology. Included are correspondence files and financial records of the Electric Light, Motor, and Car Brake and the Electric Mining Machine companies. Electro-chemistry files include correspondence and reports documenting the development of the white lead process and the business negotiations that took place between the Sperry and Hooker Chemical companies. Also included is correspondence with William F. Dutton of the American Can Company, Leo Baekeland, and with Ernest LeMaire of the Hooker Electrochemical Company.

Gyroscope company records document the development and marketing of the marine and aeronautical instruments, including the gyrocompass, ship stabililzer, high-intensity search light, airplane stabilizer, fire control systems, automatic bombsights, and the aerial torpedo. These records describe Sperry's close working relationship with the U.S. Navy and his collaboration with Admiral David W. Taylor and Commander William McEntree. Records also describe Sperry's activities on the Naval Consulting Board. Sales and marketing records contain correspondence with representatives of the British, French, Japanese, and Russian navies.

Personal series contains genealogical and biographical information on Sperry and his family. Included is a diary of Stephen Decatur Sperry (Elmer's father), genealogical charts tracing the family roots to England and the reign of Charles I, and letters from Elmer Sperry describing his early life in Cortland and experiences at Cornell University. This series also includes correspondence of Zula Goodman Sperry (Elmer's wife) and her brother. Herbert Goodman. describing the role the Goodman family played in Elmer Sperry's various enterprises.

This series includes Sperry's correspondence with Thomas Edison (a colleague on the Naval Advisory Board) and with Helen Keller. There is also information on Sperry's personal finances and condolences which were written to him after the death of his son, Lawrence.

General correspondence series contains Elmer Sperry's correspondence with a number of prominent scientists, politicians and business people. Letters to Herbert Hoover and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., outline Sperry's political, economic, and social world views. Correspondence with Albert A. Michelson (University of Chicago), David Eugene Smith (Columbia University) and Elihu Thomson (Thomson-​Houston Company) develops Sperry's ideas about the relationship between science and technology. Also included is a letter to Mussolini.

Chicago-Cleveland,This series describes Sperry's inventions and entrepeneurial activities in the two decades (1880-1900) when he was considered one of America's electrical pioneers. It documents his efforts to develop arc lighting systems, stationary power, mining machinery, and electric traction. The records describe the operation of the Sperry Electric Light, Motor, and Car Brake Company, which was founded in 1883 to set up electric power stations and manufacture component parts. These are fragmentary, but they do contain copies of Sperry's agreements with his financial backers and correspondence that traces his efforts to patent his inventions and secure customers.

Records documenting Sperry's associations with the Electric Mining Machine Company and Independent Electric Company are far more complete. These files, which include incoming correspondence, letter books, sales books, and account books, trace Sperry's efforts to develop electric mine cars and undercuttting equipment. Sperry's letter books contain copies of a large number of reports he sent to the engineers at General Electric for analysis and comment. These letters show that Sperry was able to draw on the expertise of many of GE's young engineers who were, during the 1890s, graduating from engineering schools in relatively large numbers. These young engineers helped orient Sperry to the early twentieth-​century world of professional engineering. The Chicago-Cleveland records document Sperry's relationship with the Link-Belt Company, which rented him space to manufacture his electric mine cars. The records also show that Link-Belt provided his company with both technical support and legal advice when he became embroiled in a number of patent infringement suits during the mid-1890s.

The correspondence of the Goodman Manufacturing Company traces Sperry's continued involvement with coal-mining machine industry through the 1920s. These records show that Sperry continued to help make policy decisions and served as a consulting engineer long after he left Chicago.

During the late 1890s, Sperry's primary interest was in street railways. His correspondence from this period describes his effort to develop and patent his electric governor and car brake. Correspondence with GE engineers show that Sperry's street car employed a mode of power transmission similar to that in his mine locomotive. The records describe Sperry's efforts to market his street cars as well as his increasing commitment to experimentation and testing. Other records from Sperry's Chicago-Cleveland period include those generated by the Sperry Engineering, National Battery, and Whitley Exerciser Companies.

Taken together, these records suggest that from his earliest days as an electrical engineer, Sperry was experimenting with automatic feedback control. His arc lighting and dynamo patents describe two major improvements: a mechanical governor to automatically maintain uniform output, and an electromagnetic control mechanism to adjust current output to reflect load variations. As Thomas Hughes has pointed out, the operation of Sperry's centrifugal governor was very similar to the conventional feedback devices used in steam engines and anticipated his experiments with gyroscopic feedback control.

The papers clearly demonstrate that by the mid-1880s, Sperry was recognized as an important electrical pioneer. He was a founding member of the National Electric Light Association, which was attempting to regulate the high-power lines developed to transmit electricity economically over long distances.

The Electro-Chemistry series summarizes Sperry's experimental work and entrepreneurial interests in electrochemistry. Correspondence with Clinton P. Townsend describes the work of the Townsend laboratory and documents the business relationship that Sperry and Townsend established. The letters and technical reports trace Townsend's efforts to develop the caustic soda and white lead processes. Correspondence with E. H. Hooker of the Hooker Electrochemical Company describes the business negotiations between Sperry and Hooker, and Hooker's decision to help finance the development of the Townsend-Sperry process. The records include Sperry's and Townsend's correspondence with Leo Baekeland and Ernest LeMaire, who were assigned to supervise the construction and operation of the Niagara white lead plant for the Hooker Company.

The records document Sperry's and Townsend's attempts to develop an economical detinning process. Correspondence with William F. Dutton of the American Can Company describes operations of the detinning laboratory, as well as the business relationship that developed between Sperry and Dutton. The papers also describe the patent suit with Th. Goldschmidt & Company that eventually forced Sperry and Dutton to abandon their project.

The Sperry Gyroscope Company, Inc. records in Series IV include Elmer Sperry's business and technical correspondence that describes the development and marketing of the company's aeronautical and marine instruments. Sperry's research files trace the history of the gyroscope beginning with its invention by Leon Foucault in 1854. His correspondence describes the state of gyroscopic technology and the patent situation as it existed in 1910.

Also contained in Series IV are some fragmentary administrative records. There is a copy of the minutes of the first Board of Directors meeting (June 2, 1910), reports to the stockholders (1917-1918), tax, and financial records.

After the war, the Sperry Gyroscope Company began a systematic effort to market its products abroad. The records documenting these sales initiatives contain correspondence with representatives of the English, French, Russian, and Japanese navies. Sperry's correspondence with Admiral Hideo Takedo, who represented the Japanese Navy as well as Mitsubishi Zōsen Kaisha Ltd., is of particular interest. These letters trace the process by which Mitsubishi became a licensee for Sperry products and Sperry Gyroscope gained access to the Japanese Navy. The Sperry-Takedo letters have both personal and business dimensions. The two men shared common interests and value systems based on a faith in technological progress and an appreciation of hard work. These correspondence files show that this friendship led Sperry to appreciate Japanese culture. He made several trips to Japan at the end of his life and in 1929 organized the World Engineering Conference in Tokyo.

Diesel Engines - Research and Development series documents Elmer Sperry's files on the compound diesel engine and the electric transmission include a number of blueprints and patent diagrams describing his diesel engine and proposed electronic transmission. During the 1920s Sperry collaborated closely with H. C. Snow, an engineer with the Velie Motors Corporation of Moline, Illinois, and the collection includes a complete file of their letters. These records show that in spite of their efforts the diesel project was both a technological and financial failure. Sperry could not develop a working model nor could he raise the capital required to finance research and development in this area. For a while Ford Motor Company, Standard Oil, Baldwin Locomotive Works, and the Illinois Central Railroad expressed interest in Sperry's work but, when research and development did not proceed as rapidly as expected, they quickly withdrew their support.

Laboratory notebooks, diaries, and appointment calendars series are complete record of his published patents and his laboratory notebooks. These notebooks, which do have some gaps, can be used to trace the evolution of Elmer Sperry's approach to arc lighting, street railways, electrochemistry, gyroscopic technology, internal combustion engines, and the technological problems he encountered with each of these projects. Sperry was very articulate in his diaries and explored a variety of technological and scientific issues in them. It is evident that he drew on the work of a number of academic physicists and mathematicians and tried to apply their insights to experimental problems. Sperry's diaries contain a large number of sketches which reflect an appreciation of modern science. However, the diaries also show that in many ways Sperry was a nineteenth-century artist-engineer rather than a modern scientist whose insights are based on mathematical models.

Related Material

Sperry Gyroscope Company records (Accession 1915), Manuscripts and Archives Department, Hagley Museum and Library

Language of Materials


Additional Description


Gift of Elmer Sperry III

Separated Materials

Elmer Sperry photographs (Accession 1985.257), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Finding Aid & Administrative Information

Elmer Ambrose Sperry papers
Michael H. Nash
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA