Physicists at the-then Control Systems Laboratory (now the Coordinated Science Laboratory) developed the electrostatic gyroscope to solve the problem of navigating the nation's first nuclear submarine. At that time, a diesel submarine had to surface to determine its exact position, but nuclear submarines were intended to circumnavigate the globe, staying submerged for months at a time.
The major problem with a conventional gyroscope was keeping the motion of its rotor from being affected by the friction from its bearings or from air currents. In 1952, Arnold Nordsieck proposed an electrostatically supported gyroscope—a free, two-axis device that employed a spherical metal rotor shielded from stray magnetic fields and supported solely by high-voltage electric fields in an ultrahigh vacuum.
Initial attempts to develop an electrostatic gyroscope elsewhere were not successful, but in 1957, a group at Illinois led by Howard Knoebel undertook the project. The basic research was completed by 1962, and further development was continued by the private sector.
Within the gyroscope, an electrical field held a 2-in beryllium ball a few thousandths of an inch away from encircling metal plates and within a vacuum. Free of mechanical and air friction, the ball could spin for years without appreciable slowdown.