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Elmer Sperry: Gyroscopic Compass, 1914

Humble Beginnings

Elmer Ambrose Sperry was born on October 21, 1860, in a small house in Cortland County, New York. His mother, Mary, died in childbirth, and his father, Stephen, was out of town working at the time of his birth. Sperry's grandparents and Aunt Helen became his primary caretakers. Before he was ten, Sperry moved with his grandparents to the more urban Cortland village, glad to leave behind the harsh winters and howling winds that stormed through the countryside of his youth. His time spent on the Sperry farm, however, gave young Elmer Ambrose his first hands-on experiences with technology. Most notable was his opportunity to study water-driven mills, afforded him by the close proximity of the Tioughnioga River. Inspired by what he saw, Sperry built small water wheels of excellent design, which he sold as toys. Already observable were engineering and economic skills that would be characteristic of the adult Sperry's success.