Gyroscopic Navigation (Autopilot)

Gyroscopic navigation enables planes and ships to stay on a straight course without human intervention.

Long before GPS, airplane pilots used compasses and waypoints to navigate. Natural landmarks or even giant arrows guided planes when to turn and in which direction. Of course, between waypoints, it was necessary to fly straight or the pilot would not get from one waypoint to another.

Ships had a similar problem. Sailing straight, where stars became the waypoints, was a challenge. Furthermore, some metal ships interfered with magnetic compasses.

Keeping a ship or plane on course was simultaneously both stressful and dull.

Gyroscopic navigation solved these problems. Gyroscopes kept planes and ships headed straight with no human intervention required. Besides steering straight they also helped stabilize planes, ships, and elevators.

Sperry’s company evolved into modern autopilot.


Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane with their first flight in 1903. Urban myth describes an easy story where the bicycle mechanic brothers built an airplane from spare parts. In reality, the innovation was a long, slow, methodical, and extremely dangerous project.


People had been building various forms of fixed-wing gliders for years. Many didn’t work. Those that managed to fly a short distance eventually crashed, often causing injuries or even death.

Inventing the airplane required 1) finding an aircraft form that would stay aloft, including wings, 2) figuring out mechanisms to control the aircraft, and 3) learning to fly it without killing oneself. IP theft was rampant: the brothers suffered relentlessly. Therefore, to protect IP, everything was secretive.

Wilbur & Orville Wright

The Wright Brothers spent years experimenting. First, they built a fixed-wing controllable glider. Once that worked, they spent more time working on building a much larger version that could produce more lift and was strong enough to carry an engine. Inventing a propeller, with nothing to test it on, also proved a challenge.

Once the brothers completed their plane it took years to obtain patents because the patent office believed that flight was impossible and their innovation a fraud. That’s because there were many false claims of flight and the Wright Brothers were secretive.

They also spent years commercializing their airplane, trying to find buyers, because the US war department refused to believe that it worked and the brothers – concerned about copycats – refused to give demonstrations. Eventually, patents issued and the brothers demonstrated their plane in France, to cheering crowds, and finally in the US.

They created a business, the Wright Company, to build and sell airplanes. Expensive patent wars ensued. Competitors were ruthless and dishonest but the brothers persevered. By 1912, they had a reasonable income from licensing and investors, but Wilbur died unexpectedly, leaving Orville moved forward with commercialization alone.

The business started to earn money but, with WWI on the horizon, the US government intervened and insisted on a patent cross-licensing agreement so that others could produce military aircraft.


Like many great innovators, the Wright Brothers earned enough money to live reasonably well, and became famous, but the overwhelming majority of wealth their innovation created flowed to others.

Specifically, Glenn Martin’s merged his first aircraft company with the Wright Brothers but left that business, after a year. His new company manufactured bombers. The Loughead company, later renamed Lockheed, built flying boats. Lockheed and Martin became industry giants and merged, in 1995, to become Lockheed-Martin.

William Boeing started his aircraft company in 1914, also producing flying boats, and also became a market leader.

In 1970, Airbus was formed after several European countries noted that all aircraft manufacturers were American.