We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Lawrence Sperry had 23 patents to his name, all falling within the realm of aircraft safety. The Chicago-born Sperry sprang from inventor blood; his father, Elmer Sperry, invented the gyrocompass, that nautical wunderthing that equipped many warships by the early 20th century. In 1914, the junior Sperry became an early entry into the long line of Americans made into celebrities by the French. As the last entries in the Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane (Airplane Safety Competition), Sperry and his French mechanic, Emil Cachin, traversed the Seine River as charming showoffs. Demonstrating his late father’s gyroscope-equipped stabilizer, later to be known as autopilot, Sperry and Cachin literally stood on the wings of their C-2, each 7 feet from the controls, as the aircraft flew a straight line over the spectators. Winning the competition and becoming (French-)famous overnight, Sperry continued his research (including some that would result in guided bombs), suffered nasty crashes (one that ended in a broken pelvis), and finally perished during a routine flight over the fog-covered English Channel in 1923. Curator Roger Conner speaks about “Elmer Sperry and the Invention of Autopilot” at noon at the National Air and Space Museum, 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW. Free. (202) 357-2700.