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Sperry, Elmer Ambrose (1860-1930)
Photographs, Correspondence, and Ephemera Archive of Elmer A. Sperry and family, one of America's foremost inventors, rival of Thomas Edison, inventor of the Gyrocompass, his son Laurence B. Sperry, aviation pioneer, first to demonstrate "automatic pilot," and son-in-law Sperry Company executive Robert B. Lea, 1898-1966

65 letters, 215 pp. (manuscript & typed), plus over 1,000 photographs, manuscript history & biography, and approximately 50 pieces of paper and manuscript ephemera, dated 1898-1966. Correspondence includes letters of aviation pioneer Laurence B. Sperry, his father inventor Elmer A. Sperry, other children of Elmer A. Sperry (Elmer, Jr. and Helen Sperry), as well as letters written to and from Robert B. Lea, vice-president of the Sperry Gyroscope Company, son-in-law of Elmer A. Sperry, plus others. Manuscripts include typed biography and family history of Elmer A. Sperry, as well as the history of some of Sperry’s companies from his years in Chicago and Cleveland. Photographs are mostly family photos, but also include a number of photos of Sperry's inventions, demonstrations of these inventions, early aircraft, etc.

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           Elmer A. Sperry (1860-1930)

          Elmer Ambrose Sperry, engineer, inventor an entrepreneur, was born in Cortland, New York, October 12, 1860, son of Stephen Decatur and Mary (Borst) Sperry, and a descendant of Richard Sperry, who, in 1666, secreted and maintained in the Judges Cave at New Haven Colony three of the judges who had condemned Charles I to death. He was educated in the State Normal School in Cortland and then attended Cornell University for one term, from 1879 to 1880.

           At Cornell he developed an interest in electrical engineering and began working with a group of industrialists from Syracuse, New York, in order to construct an arc lighting system. By 1882 Sperry was already recognized as one of America's electrical pioneers.

          In 1883 Sperry moved to Chicago where he established the Electric Light, Motor, and Car Brake Company. He found that he could not compete with the more established Edison and Brush Electric companies, so he began experimenting with electric coal-mining equipment. In l886 he founded the Sperry Electric Mining Machine Company. During these years Sperry also developed an electric street car. After selling his patents to General Electric, he went to work for the company as a consultant. Sperry also drove the first American-built automobile through the streets of Paris in 1896.

          In 1907 Sperry began to experiment with the gyroscope. He is best known for his utilization of the gyroscope for the stabilization of ships, airplanes and aerial torpedoes. He also invented the gyro compass, which eliminated the variations due to the earth's magnetism. Three years later, he founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, in order to develop, manufacture, and market marine gyro-stabilizing devices. Working closely with the Navy, he developed the gyrocompass, ship stabilizer, and high intensity search-light. Next he invented "metal mike," the automatic steersman, which keeps a ship on a set course. Next he used it to stabilize ships and to keep them on an even keel in all kinds of weather. Later, he applied the gyroscope to airplanes, with devices to give fliers artificial horizons, enabling them to fly "blind" in dense fogs. In addition, he invented new systems of street lighting, new machinery for mining, electric devices for trolley cars, an electric automobile, a lighting system for motion picture projection, an electric arc light, a high-power searchlight and electrochemical processes.

           Prior to 1910 there were already six industrial corporations founded to manufacture Sperry's inventions, doing then an aggregate annual business of over $5,000,000. During the First World War, the Sperry Gyroscope Company became a major defense contractor, and Elmer sat on the Naval Consulting Board. After the war, Sperry Gyroscope moved into aeronautics as it developed airplane stabilizers, gyro-stabilized bombsights, and the aerial torpedo. In January, 1929, he sold the Sperry Gyroscope Company, of which he was president, to the North American Aviation Company, and soon after started building up the Sperry Development Company, Inc., and also the Sperry Rail Service Corporation. He organized Sperry Products, Inc., as successor to the two last-named companies.

           In 1914, Sperry was awarded first prize of the Aero Club of France or his airplane stabilizer; he also was the winner of two Franklin Institute Medals in 1914 and 1929; Collier Trophies, 1915, 1916; Holley Medal, 1927; John Fritz Medal, 1927; Albert Gary Medal, 1929; two decorations from the last Czar of Russia; two decorations from the Emperor of Japan, the Order of the Rising Sun and the Order of the Sacred Treasure; and the grand prize of the Panama Exposition. He was also awarded three honorary degrees--Doctor of Engineering from Stevens Institute and Lehigh University; and Doctor of Science from Northwestern University.

           Elmer Sperry died on June l6, l930. At the time of his death, Sperry owned 332 patents and had 48 more pending, about double the number taken out by Thomas Edison. The earliest one for a steam engine dynamo dates from 1882 and in 1930, the year of his death, he was granted four patents alone.

Upon Sperry's death Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams, III stated, "The United States naval service ashore and afloat will learn with deep regret of the loss of one from whom we have received much. As a member of the naval consulting board since 1915, Mr. Sperry has rendered invaluable service as chairman of the committees on mines and torpedoes and aids to navigation and as a committee member on aeronautics, internal combustion engines, and special problems. His numerous inventions, including his gyrocompass, plane stabilizer, high intensity searchlight and his many refinements on apparatus for accurately controlling the fire of our guns, have assisted materially in placing the navy in first-class fighting trim. It is safe to say that no one American has contributed so much to our naval technical progress."

          Sperry married Zula A. Goodman at Chicago, June 28, 1887. She died in Havana, Cuba in 1929. Together Sperry and his wife had four children: Laurence B. Sperry who lost his life in 1923 while flying over the North Sea in a plane of his own design; Edward G. Sperry, Elmer A. Sperry Jr., and Helen Sperry, who married Robert B. Lea.

Laurence B. Sperry (1892-1923)

Laurence Burst Sperry was born on 21 December 1892, at Chicago, Illinois. He was an aviation pioneer and the third son of gyrocompass co-inventor Elmer Ambrose Sperry and his wife Zula Goodman. Laurence Sperry invented the first autopilot, which he demonstrated with startling success in France in 1914. Sperry is also credited with developing the artificial horizon still used on most aircraft in the early 21st century.

Laurence was an energetic youth, and by age 10 he had acquired a bicycle and a newspaper route. The events at Kitty Hawk, N.C., that made the front pages in December 1903 left a strong impression on him. The ingenuity of the Wright brothers spurred young Laurence to open a bicycle, roller skate and doorbell repair shop in the basement of the family house. It was an instant success, and in short order he expanded his operations to include motorcycle repair. From an early age, he displayed a natural yen for mechanical devices, despite a lack of formal training.

The Sperry's usually traveled to Bellport, Long Island, each year for a summer of seaside tranquility. This absence by the rest of the family was the opportunity for Laurence and his brother, Elmer Jr., to make their big move in 1909. Laurence had studied a Voisin biplane that he had seen at an airshow at Mineola, on Long Island, and had made meticulous notes on its dimensions and construction. Now, with the town house empty except for servants, the Sperry brothers started building a glider in the basement.

First the boys built the steam box they needed to bend wood to the required shapes. They also set up a jig on the floor, where the pliant wood could be clamped until dry. The furnace in the basement furnished steam for the production of the aircraft components.

The boys’ glider plans went out the window when an interested customer, a Mr. Wilcox, asked Laurence what he planned to use as an engine. An engine? That sounded intriguing. A 5-cylinder Anzani radial engine was available at a cost of $800. The Anzani could claim demonstrated reliability. It had been the power plant of the aircraft in which Louis Blériot in 1909 became the first man to fly the English Channel. The Sperry brothers had only $300 in their till, but Wilcox was willing to put up the balance so their plane could have an engine. Repayment was to come from the proceeds of a soon-to-come barnstorming career by 16-year-old Laurence — who had not yet even made it into the air.

If nothing else, Laurence was daring. When the plane’s wings turned out to be too large to fit through the doors of his parents’ house, he proceeded to remove two large, handsome bay windows from the house so they could carry the semi-assembled aircraft out into the yard. Sperry Sr., upon discovering the alterations, made a reasonable decision — that the first earnings from young Laurence’s new flying career would be allocated to pay for repairs to the house.

With the engine not yet on hand, Laurence thought it might be prudent to begin flying his plane as a glider so that he could get some practice. After talking his way into using the nearby Sheepshead Bay Race Track, which had fallen on hard times, Laurence towed the aircraft to the new proving ground with a Panhard automobile he had acquired. After assembly, the glider was hitched to the Panhard, and with Elmer Jr. at the wheel, the maiden flight began. The plane had reached a height of 150 feet when the tow rope broke. The glider, with Laurence at the controls, proved fairly tractable in the air, although he did have a hard landing and received a few scrapes and bruises. The glider needed only minimal repairs. After that initial hop, Laurence was consumed by the flying bug.

The Sperry brothers’ shiny new engine arrived the following week and was installed without delay. As a protective measure, Laurence had taken steps to prevent a nose over by installing six bicycle wheels as an enhanced landing gear. Fueled up, the engine started, and then, sensing the moment of truth was at hand, Laurence opened the throttle. With his recent experience in the glider coupled with apparently latent talent for flying, Laurence reached the respectable altitude of 500 feet. Even more important, he made a decent landing.

Realizing that a mostly on-the-job education in flying was insufficient, Laurence decided to formalize his conquest of the air. After a few more years of academic study, he enrolled in the aviation school run by Glenn Curtiss at Hammondsport, N.Y. Sperry learned quickly. On October 15, 1913, he received Federal Aeronautics Pilot License No. 11 from the Aero Club of America and became the youngest licensed pilot in America.

With the outbreak of World War I weeks later, Sperry’s life changed. He offered to serve in a French frontline squadron as an experienced pilot, but to his dismay officials turned him down because he lacked a college degree. Undaunted, he returned to the United States to continue his research.

So far, Sperry had flown hydroplanes almost exclusively, but he began to think about creating a dual-purpose aircraft. He reasoned that a flying boat could carry a retractable landing gear so that it could also operate from a land base. The result: The Aerial Age Weekly issue of March 29, 1915, featured an article with Sperry demonstrating what turned out to be the first wheeled retractable landing gear in such a plane.

The Sperry Gyroscope Company, of Brooklyn — with Elmer Sr. and Laurence working in tandem — soon developed an unpiloted aircraft that could fly to a target guided by the Sperry gyroscopic device. But that turned out to be an idea ahead of its time. (The concept would resurface during World War II.)

Laurence traveled to Britain and returned in 1916 with a briefcase crammed full of orders for what is now famous as the automatic pilot. At age 24, he had become a well-known inventor. In 1916 he was also commissioned a lieutenant junior grade by the U.S. Navy and assigned as a flight instructor.

Laurence Sperry never rested on his laurels. Between 1915 and 1923, he had 23 patents either pending or granted. Among his inventions was instrumentation that permitted aircraft to be piloted when visibility was zero. His bank-and-turn indicator and artificial horizon have remained the basic instruments for every aircraft from the Boeing 747 to the Piper Cub. He also came up with a variety of other instrumentation, including an airspeed indicator, a drift indicator and a significant improvement over the (British) Creaghton-Osborne liquid-filled magnetic compass.

After the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Laurence Sperry continued research on an aerial torpedo that was actually a guided bomb. Working in concert with automotive inventor Charles Kettering, he produced a prototype of a pilotless aircraft rigged to fly a preset course to a designated target. Another member of that research team was 1st Lt. James Doolittle of the U.S. Army, whose name would become a household word in the three decades to come. The project, called the ‘Bug,’ was not entirely successful, largely due to the unreliability of the engines used.

The Sperry-Kettering research, however, provided the guidance principles utilized in Germany’s later development of a flying bomb, the Vergeltungswaffe-1 (V-1 vengeance weapon), in 1944. The Germans solved the problem of unreliable power plants by using a simple and reliable pulse-jet engine, which required an absolute minimum of moving parts.

While testing the Bug in March 1918, Sperry — who was serving as pilot — crashed, and suffered a broken pelvis that immobilized him for three months. During his recovery he spent time on calculations that would result in a new and improved parachute. By the time he was released from the hospital, he knew he had invented a seemingly foolproof seat, or backpack, parachute. His design would eliminate the problem of a parachute becoming entangled in aircraft empennage. To test his device, he went to the roof of the Garden City Hotel, on Long Island, and let his parachute fill and drag him from the roof. It performed as designed, and he landed safely. The Sperry parachute soon entered production.

At WWI’s end the entire nation turned to civilian diversions, and Sperry shifted gears as well. As the result of a conversation with Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, assistant chief of the U.S. Air Service, Sperry designed and built an inexpensive sport plane, the Sperry Messenger, which could reach 95 miles per hour. It had a 20-foot wingspan and was powered by a 3-cylinder radial engine that delivered 30 miles to the gallon. Mitchell was so impressed by the design that the Army ordered a dozen for general service.

The Messenger was also well received by civilian aviators and appeared at airports around the country. Sperry used a Messenger to commute from his Brooklyn home to the factory on Long Island. He would routinely land and take off from the parade grounds on Parkside Avenue, adjacent to Prospect Park, and leave his aircraft at a convenient police station at the western end of the impromptu landing field. His home on Marlborough Road and the site of his initial aircraft production plant were within easy walking distance.

An experienced pilot with more than 4,000 hours of flight time, fully trained to fly by instruments alone, Sperry had no hesitation in taking off in any weather conditions. His personal aircraft was always fully equipped with instrumentation of his design. On December 23, 1923, he took off from Britain for a quick flight to France, undeterred by the fact that the Channel was fogbound. Somewhere en route, however, his luck ran out. Whether due to mechanical failure or inability to navigate over the Channel, he never reached his destination. The Messenger he had personally designed was found in the water. Sperry’s body was recovered on January 11, 1924. When died at age 31, Laurence Sperry had 23 patents related to aircraft safety in his name. His autopilot and stabilization system was also adapted for marine use and all major passenger ships plying oceans at the time employed a Sperry-type stabilizer actuating a wing-like device to dampen rolling. A form of the Sperry autopilot linked to a Sperry gyrocompass is in common use on every ship of any size.

The archive includes 18 letters written by Laurence B. Sperry mostly his mother, only 1 to his father, and 1 addressed to both, while he was away at either camp in New York State (1907), or at school in Arizona (1911-1912). Laurence B. Sperry writes his letters from 1907 to 1914 when he would have been between the age of 15 and 22 years old.

Robert B. Lea (1891-1968)

Robert Brooke Lea was born in Methuen, Massachusetts in 1891. He studied engineering at Cornell University. Lea worked in various capacities for the Sperry Gyroscope Company, eventually becoming its vice-president from 1932-1945. He first joined the company in 1915 and ended his time with the company in 1956 as coordinator of export sales with the Sperry Rand Corporation.

Lea's work took him around the world several times and involved him in a number of historic events in aviation history, including the preparations for Wiley Post's famed solo flight around the world in the Winnie Mae in 1933. Prior to that historic flight, Mr. Lea made an extended air tour with Post to prove the first commercial automatic pilot produced by Sperry and subsequently used on the record flight.

          Lea married Elmer A. Sperry's daughter Helen. The couple married on 8 October 1921 at the Chapel of Packer Collegiate Institute. The elder Sperry’s and their children were longtime summer residents and eventually year round residents of Bellport, Long Island, where Helen lived out her very long life as did her husband. Robert B. Lea died at Bellport in 1968.  Robert and Helen had a son Sperry Lea (1923-2013) and it is this son that this archive appears to have come down from. Sperry Lea married Anna Lambrinidou of Greece and together had at least two children: Helena Lea-Bastille and R. Brooke Lea. 

Sample Quotes from Letters:

An early letter, written by Laurence B. Sperry when he was only 15 years of age, shows early signs of being an inventor and mechanic:

"Forest Park Camp, Oquaga Lake, New York, July 5, 1907

Dear Mama,

I am having a fine time here at camp there is always something to do, there is boating, fishing, swimming and hunting....The lake here is very handsome as well as very deep. It is just about a square mile in area. It also has a great many boats and launches. There is fine electric launch here and yesterday it blew a fuse right near camp. I went over and told the man that I could fix it for him so I went home and took a piece of copper wire off the line in my row boat and put it in the fuse box and it worked all right, then the man took me all around the lake in the launch...

This afternoon the Doctor tested our hearts. He said that there was something the matter with my heart. It seems that it goes slow then fast and then it nearly stops. I suggested that there was something the matter with the governor of that internal machine, but he shook his head and said that I must not enter into athletics and what do you think of that. My impression is that the inlet value sticks a little...

How is business around home? Did Mr. Wicks take his wheel and cough up the cash and did Edward sell the roller skates?....L.B. Sperry"

One letter from Laurence B. Sperry was written home from Arizona where he had gone to school. While in Arizona he was learning bronco riding. He appears to relate bronco riding to his future experiments with stabilizing inventions:

"November 2, 1911

Dear Mother,

...Last week I mounted my first 'bucker." A few days before I went around to the Mesa Feed Yard and told them of my desires they said, they hadn't anything then, but if I came around on Thursday they would take care of me. Thursday I got there with a bunch of fellows who came to pick up the pieces and take pictures as they told me. The horse was a dust colored cattle pony the cowboys who had gathered to see the fun had a rope bridle fastened around his head with no bit. Two of them held him by the ears while they put my saddle on him. By the nudging of those on the haystacks and the presence of the cowboys I actually began to feel less like riding than I had on Tuesday before. They said he wouldn't do anything without spurs so I had a pair fastened to my heels. I was to ride inside the corral. I jumped on he started to buck a little I dug the spurs into his sides and he bucked around the corral some more. Then they grabbed the horse and said that the saddle girth needed tightening. I found afterwards that each time they pretended to tighten the girth they threw some sulphuric acid on his back quarters. This time he bucked a little more and harder after they third time they threw acid on him he put his old head down and went thru some pretty good ones. Then they opened the corral and let me out on the street as he left the corral he gave another peach of a buck he ran under some trees on the street almost knocking me off then they rode after the horse and let me off.

When I got off I was all in I don't know why it tired me so, but I could just about stand up thats all. The reason why I wasn't thrown was because this horse wasn't really bad. They told me to come next Saturday and I could get on a real bucker. I agreed to come but Mr. Evans said that I must get your permission before doing so. Please send me your permission immediately as I want to learn to ride. I would not learn at that place because they are a mean bunch. Anyone who would put acid on a horse as they did aren't right.

...Riding a bronco depends a good deal on practice. For if you tried to stick on by holding on the saddle with both hands and clinching with your legs you could never do it. You would be jerked off in no time. The way to Bronco Buster does it is this, when he rides he has both feet & hands perfectly free but he balances with his body so that his center of gravity is perfectly in line with that of the horse.

When the horse if he is a good one jumps up and while in mid air gives a sort of whip lash jerk then rider has to be just as quick as the horse that is why I was so tired when I got off....Your son Laurence"

A letter of November 5th, 1911, Laurence B. Sperry writes to his mother telling her of just missing meeting Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the first person to fly the first transcontinental airplane flight across the U.S. from September-November 1911:

"November 2-5, 1911

Dear Mother,

I have decided to write a little each day thus keeping you better informed and leaving less for me to do all at once....

At dinner time I found that Aviator Rogers was supposed to arrive and leave Phoenix that very day. I telephoned down to Phoenix and found had arrived all right, but didn't expect to leave until some time in the afternoon. I immediately got permission to go. There were two gentlemen guests of Archive at dinner. They took me to Phoenix in their car. I afterward found my reading the evening paper that they were James Garfield, son of the late President and L.C. Hill, engineer of the reclamation service. I especially wanted to see Rogers for as you know I saw him in N.Y. & Chicago. I arrived just one hour after his special train had left. However I contented myself with going to the Alfalla Field adjoining the fair grounds & "kissing the place where he landed." Also picked up some circulars on the field which I think were thrown from him in flight. I also found that my friend Schroeder the mechanic was still part of the crew. We never really know who some of the guests here are. The Sunday before last Gen. Wood came to the school to visit his son. I didn't know until Cousin Helen told me that it was he.

Nov. 5. Your good letter received. Don't worry, your name is just as good as Margarets. Although I don't now, I may in after life see as you say that this was a wise procedure. At present however, I find it a little hard to do that which I am uninterested in and see myself losing good time. It doesn't seem to me as if I can ever look, upon the breaking of my connection with the aeroplane as anything but a loss of valuable experience. When I restart in May (In aeroplanes) I will find myself way behind.

Did you subscribe for 3 aero papers or just one? I hope you subscribed to all three & asked them to start with the farthest back issue possible.

Please keep me informed in each letter, just what happens concerning the aeroplane & if nothing happens....Yours Laurence"

In a letter to his father, the young Laurence writes to his father congratulating him on finishing up his first gyrocompass:

"November 12, 1911

Dear Father,

I was mighty glad to receive your letter. I think you over estimate the danger I over went, the horse wasn't half as bad as you think, those cowboys wouldn't put a green person on anything bad.

I am glad to hear you are rapidly completing the first gyrocompass for the "Utah." Will you finish it in the specified 90 days? Everybody out here seemed to know without speaking that you built the first gyrocompass. Archie says he'll try to keep his old-man asking for more battleships so you will keep busy making compasses.

That wasn't a Chicago Paper but a Los Angeles one. I certainly will try to get advanced math down pat. But think that if I am of value to any co it will not be slinging math.

Don't you worry about the horse although I got him very cheap because of his habits of kicking & others he is rapidly getting over them by good treatment, he was abused before. He is a fine horse said by one who knows. He has an almost remarkable gate so easy you can almost fall asleep.

It is needless to give you any news here as you will probably get it though the letters to Mother. Lately I took down some data of buzzard which I found dead. The Buzzard certainly is a remarkable glider he apparently glides uphill or down with equal ease. This Buzzard glides all day long high in the air in search of decade animal food. I am enclosing some of the things I found out about him.

Hoping this letter finds you in the best of health. You loving son, Laurence S."

There is a letter to Robert Lea from R.L. Boyer, of Cooper-Bessemer Corp., Mt. Vernon, Ohio, dated October 2, 1961. Lea was looking for recollections for the biography he was preparing on Sperry. Boyer states in part:

"...I have said many times that Mr. Sperry was one of the world’s greatest inventors and that he certainly exceeded Edison. This always comes as a surprise to the listener for of course Edison is thought of as being America’s greatest contribution to science. Actually Mr. Edison mainly worked on comparatively simple things even though the outcome was, in so many cases, a great accomplishment for mankind. There is nothing very complicated about the incandescent lamp, the movie machine, or the phonograph. They have contributed greatly to the comforts and enjoyments of people the world over but they are so relatively simple that if Mr. Edison hadn’t thought of them when he did, I am sure someone else would.

On the contrary, Mr. Sperry delved into things that were so scientific and so involved that the public little understood him. The development and application of the Gyro principles are still beyond most people and, although the benefits to mankind have been just as great or even greater, the public little understands the principles and certainly doesn’t know where the original thinking came from...."

           Description of Archive:


16 letters, 98 pp., dated 1907-1912, written by Laurence B. Sperry to his mother, of these 16 letters, 13 of them are complete, and 3 (8 pp.) are incomplete. Of the other pages, 70 of the pages belong to other incomplete letters. At the time Laurence wrote these letters he would have been 15 to 20 years old and just beginning his aviation career (he built his first plane at 19 years of age). Three letters of 1907 are written from Forrest Park Camp in Oquaga Lake, New York. The camp was run by Calvin L. Lewis, A.M., of the Manual Training High School of Brooklyn, New York. There is a gap in writing, and then the correspondence begins again in 1911 when Laurence writes his mother five letters in 1911 and eight letters in 1912.

6 letters, 27 pp., dated 1903-1914, written by Laurence B. Sperry to others, including his grandmother (1), father Elmer A. Sperry (1), sister Helen (2), his parents (1), and a woman Marie Bacon (1) telling her of his trip by motorcycle to Chicago from New York. Two of these letters (to grandmother and one to parents) are Xerox color copies.

18 miscellaneous letters, 42 pp., dated 1898-1927, written by various members of the Sperry family. Of these 18 letters, 3 are incomplete, and another 11 are typed copies. The 11 typed copies of letters are letters of Elmer A. Sperry who writes to his wife and family when he was on a trip to Europe in 1898 testing out his electric car invention. There is another letter (1927), in manuscript, by Elmer A. Sperry to a Mrs. Ballard, with a photograph clipped to it of his sons and a friend from Sunday School. There is 1 letter (1898) from the mother of Mrs. Sperry to her daughter and a letter (1899) from Helen Sperry to her mother Mrs. Sperry. Mrs. Sperry receives a letter from a Mr. Evans of Mesa, Arizona in 1911. A Capt. A.L. Dunnng, USN, writes to Sgt. Sperry Lea concerning an order of Japanese machine gun optical sights. Elmer Sperry, Jr, writes to his mother Mrs. Sperry, as well Helen Sperry writes a second letter to an unknown person.

5 letters, 11 pp., dated 1942-1966, written by Robert B. Lea, vice president of Sperry Gyroscope Company, Inc. Lea writes to Roswell Ward, to the director of the Wright Field Museum (2), "Tom," and another person.  The letter to Tom has a several page copy of a letter attached to it. This letter is a copy of a letter written by Elmer A. Sperry to Helen

20 incoming letters, 37 pp., written to Robert B. Lea, dated 1930-1966, includes 4 photographs, with 3 of the letters being copies. The letters are written by: "Bill" of the Goodman Manufacturing Company of Chicago, IL; Jonathan Norton Leonard (2) of Sandwich, MA; S.C. Hollister, of Cornell University; M.F. Bates (2), Sperry Gyroscope Co., Inc.; Col. W.R. Clingerman (2), Headquarters, Air Material Command, Dayton, OH; Albert Britt, Nonquitt, MA; Theodore P. Wright, of Ithaca, NY; R.L. Boyer (3 but 2 are copies), Vice President, Cooper-Bessemer Corp., Mt. Vernon, OH; Elmer A. Sperry (1 copy of letter); Andrew McNally, III (1), of Rand McNally & Co.; Charles H. Colvin, Point Pleasant, NJ;  S. Paul Johnson (3), Smithsonian Institution, Wash, DC; and Hamilton Allport, Glencoe, Illinois. A number of these letters deal with Mr. Lea asking for information on the early history of some of the Sperry companies, early history of the Gyroscope, as well as for information concerning certain photographs, included in this collection of early inventions of Sperry, or airplanes of his son Laurence.


An extensive archive comprised of approximately 1200 items, primarily photographs, but also correspondence, manuscripts, and ephemera, documenting the professional and private life of Elmer Sperry as well as members of his family, in particular his son aviation pioneer Laurence B. Sperry and his son-in-law and Sperry Company executive Robert B. Lea.

Based on the content of a portion of the correspondence that is included in this collection, as well as the way in which some of the photographs are presented, that is, accompanied by typed descriptive labels, it appears that the material was collected for use in publishing a biography of Elmer A. Sperry.   A number of the letters and photographs are addressed to or annotated by Sperry's employee and son-in-law, Robert Brooke Lea, who appears to have been in the process of researching and writing a biography of his father-in-law during the second half of the 20th century; however, it appears that the biography was never completed. Lea died in 1968 (he was corresponding up to 1966 on the project). The archive appears to have come down through the estate of Elmer A. Sperry's grandson, Sperry Lea, of Washington, D.C., the son of Robert B. Lea.

The photographs range in size from 1.5" x 2"to 8" x 10", with most dating from 1900-1950. These photos are generally snapshots of family gatherings, parties, athletic competitions, vacations, sweethearts, and more. A number of photographs appear to have been taken during World War II, capturing views of the people, places, and sites of Japan, as well as American soldiers overseas and returning home at the close of the war. There are also a number of aerial photos within the collection, taken from airplanes. There are also photographs of Washington, D.C., as well as New York City, and other places in New York State, as well as apparent trip West.

Although the photographs date from the last quarter of the 19th century through the mid-20th century, the real highlights of these photos are those related to Elmer A. Sperry, his son Laurence B. Sperry, and their navigation and aviation inventions, dated circa 1910s-1920s. A number of these photographs are copy prints of earlier photographs, apparently produced from the Sperry Company archive. Some of the highlights of the photograph collection are as follows:

11 photographs, 8" x 10", of various inventions of Sperry, includes four pages of pencil notations clipped to them, photographs are of the "Drift Meter," "Air Distance Meter," "Flight Indicator" (two different types), "Turn Indicator," and "Gasoline Gauge." The photos show front and rear views.

1 photograph, 4 ¾" x 6 ¾", of "M.F. Bates in the Alex. Laughlin Machine," c1913.

1 photo, 6 ¾" x 9 ¼", Coast Guard Control Boat THETIS, with two 18-inch pilot-house type incandescent searchlights and one 18-inch high intensity searchlight, not dated.

1 photo, 8" x 10", of "Lt. M. Huggins & Mr. E. A. Sperry, Jr., with Gyroscopes," probably from the period between the wars.

4 photos, 3 ½" x 5", showing the testing of the landing gear fitting on the Amphibian Bomber, August 20, 1919.

3 photos, 8"x 10" each,  on the dedication of Castle Field, Merced, CA 6 April 1946, includes Robert B. Lea in photo.

1 photograph, 8" x 10", of Laurence B. Sperry's first aeroplane, old Sheepshead Bay Race Track in 1911, constructed when he was 19 years old.

1 photograph, 8" x 10", of Cockpit of Curtiss flying boat equipped with Sperry Gyropilot in which the late Laurence Sperry broke endurance and distance records for flights with a passenger in January 1915. Gyropilot is shown in foreground.

1 photo, 8" x 10", of "Home of the Sperry Gyroscope Company, Manhattan Bridge Plaza, Brooklyn, NY," not dated.

1 copy of photo of "Sperry Exhibit at World's Fair," 1893.

1 copy of photo, 5" x 7", of "Birthplace of Elmer A. Sperry, Cincinnatus," not dated.

1 copy of photo, 8" x 10," of "Mr. Sperry's Sunday School Class in Cortland, New York," date circa 1874-1876.

1 photo, 8" x 10", of group of people at the launching of the U.S. S. Sperry, 1941.

7 photos, 8" x 10," commemorate 40th years of service by William J. Selover with the Sperry Company, circa 1953. Selover and Robert B. Lea in 1919 were on a ship in Norway and were the first to demonstrate the Sperry Gyrocompass on a commercial merchant ship, which is mention on rear of one of the photographs.

1 photo, 8" x 10", of the original Dynamo at Cornell, not dated.

1 photo, 7" x 5,"of "Elmer Jr." demonstrating "home-made gyro demonstrator employing a bicycle and swiveling seat," not dated.

15 photographs, some copies, 2 of them portraits, 8" x 10," of Elmer A. Sperry, circa 1920s, with the other photos being various sizes, of Elmer A. Sperry, some with his inventions, or demonstrating them, some with his family (wife and children),etc.

3 copies of photographs, 8" x 10," of the sons of Elmer A. Sperry (Lawrence & Edward, or Elmer Jr.), showing the men in airplanes, one building an airplane, not dated, circa 1910s.

2 photographs, 8" x 10," taken from the air (in flight) over Arizona, with a Leica camera, dated c1930s, shows wings of plane, clouds, landscape below.

1 copy of photo, 4" x 3," of three boys from Sunday School, includes Elmer A. Sperry, not dated c1870s

1 photo, 6 ¼" x 4 ½", of Elmer A. Sperry as a young man working on a set of blueprints with another gentleman, dated late 19th Century. There is also several other copies of this same photo in 8" x 10" and 8" x 5" format.

1 photograph, 8" x 10", of Elmer A. Sperry and four other inventors (Dr. Elihu Thomson, Dr. F.J. Sprague, Dr. Charles F. Brush, and Dr. E.W. Rice), dated 1928.

1 photograph, 8" x 10," of Elmer A. Sperry demonstrating one of his inventions

1 copy of photo, 8" x 10," of U.S. Navy “Flying Boat” – several letters concern identification of men standing near the aircraft.

5 copies of photos, 8" x 10," of men and airplanes at Glen Curtiss' Flying School at Hammondsport, New York dated 1912, includes Lawrence Sperry receiving flying training. Several letters are attached to these photos sent to Robert B. Lea from correspondents who Lea wrote to for help figuring out the men in the photos (they did).

2 photos, 8 ½" x 6 ¾," of early airplanes, probably planes of Laurence B. Sperry, not dated.

35 photographs, various sizes, "Illustrations for a Brief Biography of Elmer A. Sperry." These appear to be copies of photographs and illustrations compiled by Robert B. Lea for the proposed biography of his father-in-law Elmer A. Sperry, not dated. The photographs are of various inventions of Sperry, the models, machines, and products that were produced by Sperry's company, with many of them having typed captions. They show some workers at the company, a Sperry electric trolley, his equipment he made for mining, etc.

Plus hundreds of other family photographs of Elmer A. Sperry, his children, and their families.

Some of the ephemera includes:

Series of photos of sketches by Alfred Crimi and one page explaining hiring him in to draw several Sperry developments.

Sperry Gyroscope Company, Brooklyn, NY – form for Manufacturing, Performance, Purchase, Sales, and Test Specifications, 5 pages (carbon copy), pinned together. For “Sperry Dead Reckoning Tracer System…for Normal Speed Ships.” 

Copy of article by Sperry from 1879 in The Normal News, on “England and America as Manufacturing Competitors.”

Copy of Robert Lea obituary (1891-1968) – “He is survived by his widow, the former Helen Sperry… two grandchildren, Helena and Robert Brooke Lea II.”

A blank example of Sperry company letterhead

A copy of J.C. Hunsaker. “Biographical Memoir of Elmer Ambrose Sperry 1860-1930. Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1955. 8vo, printed paper wraps, 40 pp. One copy has lists of all of his publications and patents cut out of the back; other one complete.

Plus others


"Sperry Biography Marechal Version,"  written/edited by someone named "Perkie," 79 typed pp., loose sheets in clipped folder, dated circa 1942, includes two letters (2 pp.) by Perkie to "Bob" dated 1942. It is possible that the person's name is Perkie Marechal. This portion of manuscript includes Chapters IV-VII, the second half of a manuscript, with chapter headings of "The Gyroscope," "Naval Fire Control," "An Inventor Goes to War," and "After the War."

"Sperry Biographical Data Volume II," 45 typed pp., bound in 3 ring binder, not dated, contains genealogy & history of Sperry's wife's family, the Goodman family, as well as the biography of Sperry and history of Chicago companies circa 1880-1915.

"Sperry Biographical Data Volume III," [1], 63 typed pp., plus 1 page with 4 tipped in photographs, bound in 3 ring binder, not dated. This volume covers the history of Sperry's "Cleveland Companies" period circa 1890-1905.


53 pieces of ephemera, cartoon, drawing, newspaper clipping, poetry/verse, letterhead, forms, circulars, invitations, cards, pamphlet, death notices, used envelopes, memorandum notes, place holder pages for proposed history, or biography of Sperry, etc.

American National Biography, volume 20, pp., 464-466

Dictionary of American Biography, vol. IX, pp., 454-456

Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 12, pp., 574-575