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Demystifying Tech: Gyroscopes

Demystifying Tech is a new weekly series in which TechnoBuffalo’s staff deciphers the cryptic technology terms that are thrown around everyday. By attaining a higher knowledge of the specifications backing the latest gadgets, one is able to make educated decisions and construct substantial opinions about controversial and complex topics.

Today, we’ll be diving into the world of gyroscopes, interesting sensors that can detect changes in angular momentum and defy gravity.


Moving in peculiar ways while defying gravity, gyroscopes appear to be extremely complex instruments that only advanced scientists can understand. Fortunately, it is not that difficult. Rooted in the concept of angular momentum, the same gyroscopic properties that make your bicycle’s wheels work apply to advanced navigation systems on next-generation space shuttles.

The earliest known device resembling a gyroscope was invented by Johann Bohnenberger, who wrote about it in his collection of scientific works in 1817. His machine was based on a massive rotating sphere. His plans were revised in 1832 by Walter Johnson, who decided to base his device on a rotating disk. Pierre-Simon Laplace began to teach, referencing the device as a teaching aid. His teachings resonated with Leon Foucault, who used it in an experiment involving the Earth’s rotation. He gave the device its modern name. For any etymology enthusiasts, the word “gyroscope” is derived from French and Greek, meaning “rotation examiner.”

The invention of electric motors in the ninteenth century allowed for gyroscopes to spin perpetually, leading to Hermann Anshutz-Kaempfe’s invention of the gyrocompass in 1904. Elmer Sperry, an American, took the German inventor’s design and produced a similar model, recognizing its potential power in aerial combat.

It was around World War II that toy gyroscopes became available, notably the Chandler gyroscope, which is still produced by TEDCO today. If you have ever played with one of these, you know that they perform a plethora of interesting tricks. They can balance on a string, resist motion, but the most interesting factor is by far precession. This is the gravity-defying aspect of the gyroscope, but how does it work?

Precession is dictated by principles of basic physics. If you have a spinning gyroscope and you try to rotate its axis, the gyroscope will try to rotate at right angles to the force axis. The design of the gyroscope defends this theory. The different sections of the gyroscope receive forces at one point but then rotate to new positions, which is why a gyroscopic wheel can move independently.

If a gyroscope is mounted in a set of gimbals, it becomes a gyrocompass. If two are mounted at right angles to one another and placed inside a similar set of gimbals, the platform remains rigid as gimbals rotate, providing the basis for inertial navigation systems. In an INS, senosrs on the gimbals detect when the platform rotates, using those signals to understand a vehicle’s rotations relative to the platform.

If the same platform in inertial navigation systems is implemented in an apparatus that has three additional sensitive accelerometers, one can tell exactly where a vehicle is headed. An airplane’s autopilot can keep a plan on course and a rocket can hit its desired target.

Gyroscopes have had a profound effect on consumer electronics. In recent years, they have been implemented in innumerable devices, used in coalition with accelerometers to provide users with satisfying motion controls. Sony’s PlayStation Move, Nintendo’s Wii Motion Plus accessory, and Apple’s line of iOS devices are all great examples of the instrument’s use.

Can you think of any more uses for a gyroscope? Is there any way that you would like to see the technology used in the future? Sound off in the comments below.

Jack McGrath

Rooted in his childhood obsession with dismantling and reassembling gizmos and gadgets around the house, Jack McGrath's knowledge of programming,...