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Elmer Sperry: Gyroscopic Compass, 1914

City Life

The years spanning 1870 to 1880 witnessed a decade of rapid industrialization for Cortland village. By early 1870, the use of roads and navigable rivers and the arrival of two major railroads (the Syracuse, Binghamton, & New York Railroad, and the Utica, Ithaca, & Elmira Railroad) connected the town with the rapidly expanding national economy. Sperry was captivated by the manufacturing and repair shops springing up around him. He observed with rapt attention the activity underway at the blacksmith shop, the machine shop, the foundry, the printing press, and the railway yard. Outside of his studies, he put in hours working at a machine shop, a foundry, and a book bindery. His local YMCA provided him with a library and a periodical reading room, at a time when public libraries were few and far between. Y-sponsored lectures and trips to technology exhibitions further impacted young Sperry.

His professors at the Cortland Normal School, too, played an important role in Sperry's formative years, especially those who worked with and encouraged the boy outside of the classroom. In general, he was not outstanding in the classroom setting. Sperry proved to be a good science student who displayed some strength in mathematics, though his skills in spelling were extremely lacking. He was a dynamic speaker, and at a time when he had become distinguished in his profession he remarked: "I can see that the whole world seemingly does not revolve around spelling." Though they failed to revolve around orthography, the revolutions of the earth would prove integral to the development of one of Sperry's most famous developments: the application of the gyroscope to ships, and later, airplanes.