A gyrocompass is a type of non-magnetic compass which is based on a fast-spinning disc and rotation of the Earth (or another planetary body if used elsewhere in the universe) to automatically find geographical direction. Although one important component of a gyrocompass is a gyroscope, these are not the same devices; a gyrocompass is built to use the effect of gyroscopic precession, which is a distinctive aspect of the general gyroscopic effect. Gyrocompasses are widely used for navigation on ships, because they have two significant advantages over magnetic compasses:
- they find true north as determined by Earth's rotation, which is different from, and navigationally more useful than, magnetic north, and
- they are unaffected by ferromagnetic materials, such as ship's steel hull, which change the magnetic field.
A gyroscope, not to be confused with gyrocompass, is a spinning wheel mounted on gimbal so that the wheel's axis is free to orient itself in any way. When it is spun up to speed with its axis pointing in some direction, due to the law of conservation of angular momentum, such a wheel will normally maintain its original orientation to a fixed point in outer space (not to a fixed point on Earth). Since our planet rotates, it appears to a stationary observer on Earth that a gyroscope's axis is completing a full rotation once every 24 hours.[note 1] Such a rotating gyroscope is used for navigation in some cases, for example on aircraft, where it is known as heading indicator, but cannot ordinarily be used for long-term marine navigation. The crucial additional ingredient needed to turn such gyroscope into a gyrocompass, so it would automatically position to true north, is some mechanism that results in an application of torque whenever the compass's axis is not pointing north.
One method uses friction to apply the needed torque: the gyroscope in a gyrocompass is not completely free to reorient itself; if for instance a device connected to the axis is immersed in a viscous fluid, then that fluid will resist reorientation of the axis. This friction force caused by the fluid results in a torque acting on the axis, causing the axis to turn in a direction orthogonal to the torque (that is, to precess) along a line of longitude. Once the axis points toward the celestial pole, it will appear to be stationary and won't experience any more frictional forces. This is because true north is the only direction for which the gyroscope can remain on the surface of the earth and not be required to change. This axis orientation is considered to be a point of minimum potential energy.
Another, more practical, method is to use weights to force the axis of the compass to remain horizontal (perpendicular to the direction of the center of the Earth), but otherwise allow it to rotate freely within the horizontal plane. In this case, gravity will apply a torque forcing the compass's axis toward true north. Because the weights will confine the compass's axis to be horizontal with respect to the Earth's surface, the axis can never align with the Earth's axis (except on the Equator) and must realign itself as the Earth rotates. But with respect to the Earth's surface, the compass will appear to be stationary and pointing along the Earth's surface toward the true North Pole.
Since the gyrocompass's north-seeking function depends on the rotation around the axis of the Earth that causes torque-induced gyroscopic precession, it will not orient itself correctly to true north if it is moved very fast in an east to west direction, thus negating the Earth's rotation. However, aircraft commonly use heading indicators or directional gyros, which are not gyrocompasses and do not position themselves to north via precession, but are periodically aligned manually to magnetic north."
The first, not yet practical, form of gyrocompass was patented in 1885 by Marinus Gerardus van den Bos. Usable gyrocompass was invented in 1906 in Germany by Hermann Anschütz-Kaempfe, and after successful tests in 1908 became widely used in German Imperial Navy.
In the United States, Elmer Ambrose Sperry produced a workable gyrocompass system (1908: patent #1,242,065), and founded the Sperry Gyroscope Company. The unit was adopted by the U.S. Navy (1911), and played a major role in World War I. The Navy also began using Sperry's "Metal Mike": the first gyroscope-guided autopilot steering system. In the following decades, these and other Sperry devices were adopted by steamships such as the RMS Queen Mary, airplanes, and the warships of World War II. After his death in 1930, the Navy named the USS Sperry after him.
Before the success of gyrocompass, several attempts had been made in Europe to use gyroscope instead. By 1880, William Thomson (lord Kelvin) tried to propose a gyrostat (tope) to the British Navy. In 1889, Arthur Krebs adapted an electric motor to the Dumoulin-Froment marine gyroscope, for the French Navy. Giving the Gymnote submarine the ability to keep a straight line under water during several hours, it allowed her to force a naval block in 1890.
A gyrocompass is subject to certain errors. These include streaming error, where rapid changes in course, speed and latitude cause deviation before the gyro can adjust itself. On most modern ships the GPS or other navigational aids feed data to the gyrocompass allowing a small computer to apply a correction. Alternatively a design based on an orthogonal triad of fibre optic or ring laser gyroscopes will eliminate these errors, as they depend upon no mechanical parts, instead using the principles of optical path difference to determine rate of rotation.
- U.S. Patent 1,279,471 : "Gyroscopic compass" by E. A. Sperry, filed June, 1911; issued September, 1918
See also 
- Acronyms and abbreviations in avionics
- Heading indicator, also known as direction indicator, a lightweight gyroscope (not a gyrocompass) used on aircraft
- Fluxgate compass
- Fibre optic gyrocompass
- Inertial navigation system, a more complex system that also incorporates accelerometers
- Schuler tuning
- Although the effect is not visible in a specific case when the gyroscope's axis is precisely parallel to the Earth's rotational axis.
- The Anschutz Gyro-Compass and Gyroscope Engineering. pp. 7–24 http://books.google.com/books?id=VJ3WCpegQxwC. Missing or empty
- Life. pp. 81–82.
- NASA NASA Callback: Heading for Trouble, NASA Callback Safety Bulletin website, December 2005, No. 305. Retrieved August 29, 2010.
- Bowditch, Nathaniel. American Practical Navigator, Paradise Cay Publications, 2002, pp.93-94, ISBN 978-0-939837-54-0.
- Galison, Peter (1987). How experiments end. pp. 34–37. ISBN 9780226279152.
- Anschütz Raytheon Gyro Compass Technology for over than 100 years
- Gyrocompass: Steaming Error, Navis. Accessed 15 December 2008.
- Seamanship Techniques:Shipboard and Marine Operations, D. J. House, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2004, p. 341
- Trainer, Matthew (2008). "Albert Einstein's expert opinions on the Sperry vs. Anschütz gyrocompass patent dispute". World Patent Information 30 (4): 320. doi:10.1016/j.wpi.2008.05.003.
- Elmer A. Sperry case file at the Franklin Institute contains records concerning his 1914 Franklin Award for the gyroscopic compass
- "A Job Thought Impossible", the story of Chrysler Corporation's mass-production of previously hand-made gyrocompasses for World War II naval requirements.
- Errors of the Gyrocompass
- Using the Gyrocompass