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Autopilot inventor Lawrence Sperry makes another impressive landing – on the steps of Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Autopilot inventor Lawrence Sperry makes another impressive landing – on the steps of Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.

The story of the world’s first autopilot

Over 100 years ago, the first autopilot was invented. To demonstrate it working, the inventor climbed out onto the wing letting the airplane fly itself in front of an audience.

American Lawrence Sperry created the first successful autopilot in 1912. As the son of the prolific inventor Elmer Sperry, who would file over 400 individual patents during his lifetime, Lawrence was fascinated with aviation from an early age and even by the age of 19 he was already working on a system that has changed remarkably little over the following hundred years.

Sperry’s “lightbulb moment” came when he connected his father’s gyroscopic heading indicator to hydraulically-operated elevators and a rudder. He christened his invention an “autopilot,” although it later became popularly known in flying circles as “George.”

Aware of the commercial potential of his invention, Sperry chose an aircraft exhibition in Paris for its European unveiling in 1914, having first completed successful dummy runs back in the US. In front of an astounded audience lining the banks of the Seine, Sperry lifted up his arms to show what his machine could do. On the second lap, French engineer Emil Cachin climbed out onto the wing, to demonstrate the autopilot’s ability to balance the plane on its own, while the pièce de résistance came on the third lap, when both men stood on the wings, letting the plane “fly itself.”

Not only did Sperry win the competition that day, he changed flying forever. In a tragic twist, Sperry met an early death flying his plane in foggy weather over the English Channel in December 1923.

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