History of the Sperry Award

To commemorate the life and achievements of Elmer Ambrose Sperry, whose genius and perseverance contributed so much to so many types of transportation, the Elmer A. Sperry Award was established by his daughter, Helen (Mrs. Robert Brooke Lea), and his son, Elmer A. Sperry, Jr., in January 1955, the year marking the 25th anniversary of their father’s death. Additional gifts from interested individuals and corporations also contribute to the work of the board.

Elmer Sperry’s inventions and his activities in many fields of engineering have benefited tremendously all forms of transportation. Land transportation has profited by his pioneer work with the storage battery, his development of one of the first electric automobiles (on which he introduced 4-wheel brakes and self- centering steering), his electric trolley car of improved design (features of its drive and electric braking system are still in use), and his rail flaw detector (which has added an important factor of safety to modern railroading). Sea transportation has been measurably advanced by his gyrocompass (which has freed humans from the uncertainties of the magnetic compass) and by such navigational aids as the course recorder and automatic steering for ships. Air transportation is indebted to him for the airplane gyro-pilot and the other air navigational instruments he and his son, Lawrence, developed together.

The donors of the Elmer A. Sperry Award have stated that its purpose is to encourage progress in the engineering of transportation. Initially, the donors specified that the award recipient should be chosen by a Board of Award representing the four engineering societies in which Elmer A. Sperry was most active:

American Society of Mechanical Engineers (of which he was the 48th president)
American Institute of Electrical Engineers (of which he was a founder member)
Society of Automotive Engineers
Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers

In 1960, the participating societies were augmented by the addition of the Institute of Aerospace Sciences. In 1962, upon merging with the Institute of Radio Engineers, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers became known as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; and in 1963, the Institute of Aerospace Sciences, upon merger with the American Rocket Society, became the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 1990, the American Society of Civil Engineers became the sixth society to become a member of the Elmer A. Sperry Board of Award. In 2006, the Society of Automotive Engineers changed its name to SAE International.

Important discoveries and engineering advances are often the work of a group, and the donors have further specified that the Elmer A. Sperry Award honor the distinguished contributions of groups as well as individuals.

Since they are confident that future contributions will pave the way for changes in the art of transportation equal at least to those already achieved, the donors have requested that the board from time to time review past awards. This will enable the board in the future to be cognizant of new areas of achievement and to invite participation, if it seems desirable, of additional engineering groups representative of new aspects or modes of transportation.

The donors have placed the Elmer A. Sperry Award fund in the custody of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. This organization is empowered to administer the fund, which has been placed in an interest-bearing account whose earnings are used to cover the expenses of the board. A secretariat is administered by the ASME, which has generously donated the time of its staff to assist the Sperry Board in its work.

The Elmer A. Sperry Board of Award welcomes suggestions from the transportation industry and the engineering profession for candidates for consideration for the award.

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