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Elmer Sperry: Gyroscopic Compass, 1914

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"You see it is very necessary to leave magnetism entirely and to reach out and lay hold of some other equally prevalent field of force." - Elmer A. Sperry to John D. Rockefeller

The possibility of using the gyroscope as a compass came along at an opportune moment in America's history. With World War I being fought in Europe, the U.S. Navy was developing its ships in American waters.

In 1911, six years before America's entry into the war, Sperry began work on his gyrocompass. Unlike the gyrocompass, the magnetic compass currently in widespread use depended on the earth's lines of magnetic force. Correction tables allowed the navigator to compensate for error resulting from variation in these lines.

The hull of the wooden ship did not interfere with the operation of the magnetic compass, but the advent of the iron and steel ship indeed posed a problem for that device. The metal components of this new variety of ship did shield the compass from the earth's lines of force and created a false magnetic field that the compass could not distinguish from that of the earth. The consequence of magnetic compass errors became increasingly more severe as navies added guns and firing power to their ships. In order for these weapons to be effective, it was essential that compasses onboard naval ships provide accurate readings.

Essential, too, was the presence of accurate compasses onboard submarines. The need to equip submarines with such a compass resulted in the development of the first gyrocompass. Its inventor was not Sperry, but a German scientist named Dr. Hermann Franz Joseph Hubertus Maria Anschutz-Kaempfe. Dr. Anschutz-Kaempfe began work on this device in 1906, after beginning development of a guidance device in 1902. His work had been aimed at his own personal goal of using a submarine to reach the North Pole, but his development of the gyrocompass won the support and encouragement of the German navy in 1906. The gyrocompass's successful tests in 1908 attracted the attention of Sperry, who decided that he would attempt to improve upon Anshutz-Kaempfe's design.