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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Elmer Sperry’s inventions contributed to all modes of transportation

Before Sperry's invention, visual inspection was the only method to check the condition of rails. (Photo:

Elmer Ambrose Sperry Sr. (October 12, 1860–June 16, 1930) was an American inventor and entrepreneur. His inventions made contributions to the railroad, automobile, shipping and aircraft industries. He also developed a number of inventions used by the U.S. and allied militaries. He is known as the “father of modern navigation technology.”

Elmer A. Sperry. (Photo:
Elmer A. Sperry. (Photo:

Railroad safety

Since U.S. railroads began in the early 1830s, railroad engineers sought to prevent failures in the railroad tracks that caused derailments or other mishaps. Rails receive wear and tear from the railcars that use the tracks. In addition, tracks are exposed to rain, snow, ice and extreme cold and hot temperatures. Over years, use and weather conditions can cause tracks to deteriorate. Track failure can lead to costly damages to railroad equipment, the loss of valuable freight, and most importantly, injuries or death of those on a train. 

Prior to November 15, 1928, the only way to check rails for defects was via visual inspection. However, while visual inspection could catch visible rail defects, it could not determine if the interior of rails were damaged. 

For example, a train derailment in 1911 in Manchester, New York led to the deaths of 29 people and 60 others were injured. The U.S. Bureau of Safety (a precursor to later federal safety agencies) investigated the derailment. The bureau concluded that  visual inspection of the tracks would not have prevented the incident because the failure was caused by an “internal transverse fissure in the rail.”

At his Sperry Rail Service company, inventor/entrepreneur Elmer A. Sperry began to work on a method “to pinpoint potentially lethal fissures in tracks” in 1923. Some five years later, Sperry had developed and built a “rail detector car” that was named SRS 102.

Sperry’s railcar was first used on the Wabash Railway between Montpelier, Ohio, and Clarke Junction, Indiana beginning on this date in 1928.  SRS 102  performed magnetic flux leakage on the rails. “A low voltage current was passed through the rail to create a magnetic field. Then, coils on the car sensed changes in the magnetic field around the rail. Wherever a defect was present, some of the magnetic flux was forced out of the part and this was detectable to an inspector.” 

During its initial run, SRS 102 tested 155 miles of tracks over a two-week period and found an average of 14 defects per day. While technological limitations meant that not all internal flaws were detected, it was a major breakthrough in railroad maintenance and safety. 

Therefore, we commemorate the first commercial use of a rail detector car on this date. The invention solved a major challenge and helped to prevent service failures and derailments along the tracks. 

If Sperry had done nothing else, developing SRS 102 would have been a major achievement. However, a rail detector car was not Sperry’s only contribution to transportation and industry. 

The SRS-128 inspecting track. (Photo: James Belmont/
The SRS-128 inspecting track. (Photo: James Belmont/

Coal industry, public transportation and an electric car

Early in his career, Sperry created a system to bring electricity into coal mines. In 1887, at the age of 27, Sperry’s electricity system allowed his self-designed mining equipment to be used deep below the surface, which significantly increased coal production. This led to the founding of the Sperry Electric Machinery Mining Company in 1888. 

Sperry then founded the Sperry Electric Railway Company in 1890. He adapted ideas from his mining company’s electric trains to create trolleys powered by electricity for use in a number of hilly cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Sperry also designed an electric automobile; this led him to patent a number of ideas that later were used in the development of portable lead acid batteries. Sperry drove his electric car in Paris in 1896; it was the first American-made car in Paris. General Electric bought the railway company and its associated patents from Sperry in 1896.

A 1900 model Cleveland Sperry System Electric Stanhope. (Photo: Bonham's/
A 1900 model Cleveland Sperry System Electric Stanhope. (Photo: Bonham’s/

Sperry began an electrochemical laboratory in Washington, D.C. in 1900. In that lab, Sperry and his associate, Clifton P. Townshend developed a process to make pure caustic soda. They also discovered a process to recover tin from scrap metal.

Impact on the maritime industry 

Sperry also helped develop the first workable gyrocompass, which better enabled ships to find geographical direction while at sea. Since then, the technology has also been used to help pilot airplanes and spacecraft. 

Sperry’s invention of a working gyrocompass was brought about in part due to bouts of seasickness on an 1898 trans-Atlantic voyage. This led him to begin developing the incorporation of a large gyroscope into a ship to lessen the rolling effect of waves. His gyroscope stabilizer differed from other systems in use at that time; it had a built-in sensor to detect the first signs of a wave that the system would seek to mitigate. 

In 1911, Sperry worked with the U.S. Navy to incorporate his gyroscopic stabilizer into Navy ships. Although the stabilizer significantly reduced the rolling of ships in high seas, the “gyrostabilizer” was never widely used due to the expense of its installation and maintenance.

In 1908 Sperry developed another use for his gyroscopes. At that time, magnetic compasses on ships made from steel had difficulty maintaining magnetic north due to variations in the magnetic field because of the steel. Sperry and business partner Hannibal C. Ford began to work on a gyrocompass that could replace magnetic compasses. 

The shop at the Sperry Gyroscope Co., Brooklyn, New York. (Photo:
The shop at the Sperry Gyroscope Co., Brooklyn, New York. (Photo:

Sperry founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, New York in 1910. His first navigational gyroscope was tested that year in the U.S. Navy’s battleship USS Delaware. After a number of successful tests, Sperry’s gyrocompass was installed on a number of American, British, French, Italian and Russian naval vessels. The gyrocompass’ importance increased during World War I; the compass was adapted to help ships to automatically steer a steady line.

Aircraft improvements

Working with his son (Lawrence Burst Sperry), Sperry also created a gyro that controlled an airplane’s elevators and ailerons through a “series of servos.” Sperry successfully implemented his gyro-stablizer technology, which until then was thought to be applicable only to large ships, into aircraft. This led to Sperry and his son winning the Aero Club of France’s competition to build a safer airplane in June 1914. They successfully demonstrated the stabilizer; Sperry’s son accomplished a “no-hands” flight past the judges. 

Although Sperry’s gyro stabilization system was never mass-produced, it later became the foundation for his son’s autopilot system.

The Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. (Photo:
The Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. (Photo:

Sperry and Peter Hewitt developed the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane in 1916. It was one of the first successful precursors of unmanned aerial vehicles.

In 1917, Sperry solved the problem of magnetic compasses indicating the opposite position when an aircraft is turning. He invented the “Gyro Turn Indicator,” which was later modified and is known now as the “Turn and Slip Indicator.” Sperry later developed a Directional Gyro and Gyro Horizon; together, these inventions created a set of flight instruments that became standard equipment on all aircraft.

Elmer Sperry demonstrating his more powerful lighting. (Photo:
Elmer Sperry demonstrating his more powerful lighting. (Photo:

More military applications 

In both World War I and World War II Sperry’s company built gyroscopes for the military. During World War I he worked to create a “flying bomb.” Using radio control, Sperry guided an aerial torpedo for more than a half-mile on March 6, 1918. This technology was later used to help guide torpedoes, ships, airplanes and spacecraft. This led Sperry to work on related devices, such as bombsights, fire control, radar and automated take off and landing.

Sperry also developed a system that could simultaneously control a ship’s guns from a “fire control room” inside the ship. The fire control system used Sperry’s gyroscopic equipment to correct each gun’s position based on changes in a ship’s course. This fire control system allowed an entire battery to be focused on one point; the control system was installed on all U.S. Navy battleships during World War I.

Sperry also began working with the U.S. Navy in 1914 to develop higher-power lighting that could be used with naval gun turrets. Sperry and his team created a new arc lamp that “heated a gas to incandescence, creating a source of light five times brighter than other continuous light sources of the time.” This invention was followed in 1918 when Sperry produced a high-intensity arc lamp that was used as a searchlight by both the U.S. Army and Navy.

he USS Sperry was named for Elmer Sperry and his many contributions to the U.S. Navy. (Photo:
The USS Sperry was named for Elmer Sperry and his many contributions to the U.S. Navy.

It is truly an understatement to say Elmer A. Sperry contributed a great deal to transportation and its various modes. His prolific inventions serve all modes.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.