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Elmer Sperry: Gyroscopic Compass, 1914

A Beautiful Mind

Sperry's schooling failed to endow him with a detailed knowledge of physics and chemistry; nevertheless, the inventor was able to grasp broad principles and apply those when solving technical problems. His mind was quick to isolate such problems, and upon recognition of a technical inadequacy his nimble fingers began to sketch out a solution.

Sperry's bookkeeper in Chicago spoke to the quality and quickness of the inventor's mind when he recalled: "I have many times seen him seemingly just looking into the air, when all at once he would pick up a pad and hold it at arms length, then with a pencil in the other hand he would begin to draw...I have heard it said that judging his activities compared to ordinary people, he had lived hundreds of years." Sperry had the capacity to sustain concentration over remarkable periods of time—his associates were consistently amazed at his ability to pick up technical conversations exactly where they had left off, even if their interruption had occurred days prior to their resumption. The inventor-engineer organized his time meticulously, determined to evade the possibility of idleness. To this end, he went so far as to redesign his slide rule so that it could be carried in his vest pocket at the end of his watch chain, available for use at all times.

His mind retained its inventive powers until he drew his last breaths: as he lay recovering from a slight stroke in an overheated Brooklyn hospital room he ordered ice placed in front of his electric fan, in order to generate cool breezes. His obituary, published in the June 17, 1930 edition of the New York Times, alludes to the mythological journey to the underworld across the river Styx, making mention of "Charon's ferry." The obituary proclaims: "he has left among men an everlasting fame, and imagination allows one to think of his inventive spirit making suggestions to the ferryman about improving service in the crossing for the benefit of those who have to take it later. For Mr. Sperry was ever thinking of how he might make the dwellers on earth a little more at ease whether on sea or land or in the air." The verity of this final testament is seen in the hundreds of patents issued to Sperry, and the lasting impression his inventions have left on the world of technology.