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Gladys West, 91, was critical in the invention of the GPS, but rarely gets the recognition. Photo Credit: Adrian Cadiz.
Gladys West, 91, was critical in the invention of the GPS, but rarely gets the recognition. Photo Credit: Adrian Cadiz.

Gladys West, the Black mathematician whose expertise led to the development of GPS

Her contributions were critical to the invention of the system that most of us use on a regular basis.

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Just about all of us have used a global positioning system (GPS) or use it on a regular basis.

Whether it’s to get from one place to another, to determine one’s position, to create a map or a variety of other uses, GPS has played a role in our lives in one way or another. 

However, what many of us may not know are the people behind the valuable invention.

It was a team effort throughout the years, but one woman in particular was critical to the invention as we know it today: Gladys West. 

It was her mathematical modeling and calculations that ultimately led to the implementation of GPS in our everyday lives. 

Who is Gladys West?

West was born Gladys Mae Brown in 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia. 

Growing up in the rural south, she was raised in a farming family in a community of sharecroppers. After spending much of her childhood working on her family’s farm, she realized that she didn’t want to work in fields or factories all her life the way most of her relatives did.

She decided that education would be her way out, but faced a financial challenge. Understanding the limited means that would result from a sharecropper’s wage, West began taking babysitting jobs to help her make and save some additional money.

However, her academic achievement proved critical as she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. As a result, she earned a full-ride scholarship to an HBCU, Virginia State College (now University).

Upon her enrollment to VSU, she decided to major in mathematics, a predominantly male major. 

​​“I knew deep in my heart that nothing was getting in my way,” West said during a 2020 interview with The Guardian

She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1952. Afterwards, she became a teacher to save money for graduate school. Two years later, she returned to VSU and completed a master’s degree in mathematics.

Navigating a New Career

After earning her degrees, in 1956 West became just the second Black woman to ever be hired at the then-Naval Proving Ground (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center), where she worked as a mathematician. 

West was a programmer in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division for large-scale computers and a project manager for data-processing systems used in satellite data analysis. 

She often wrestled with the fact that she was a Black woman in this field, but used it to fuel and drive her to succeed. 

“I started to think to myself that I’ll be a role model as the black me … to be the best I can be, doing my work and getting recognition for my work,” she noted. 

As she became more acclimated with her work, West began analyzing data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the Earth’s shape. She later became project manager of Seasat, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans using oceanographic data. 

A Pioneer in the Making

In a continuation of her previous work, West helped create GEOSAT, a satellite programmed to create computer models of Earth’s surface.

The program was able to calculate the orbits of satellites, which made it possible to determine a model for the exact shape of Earth. 

Using her background and knowledge of mathematics, West used complex algorithms to account for the forces that distort the Earth.

This model, and future updates, is what eventually led to the invention of GPS, now one of the most used inventions of today’s society. 

“I feel like I made a real good contribution to the accuracy of the Global Positioning System,” she said during a 2011 interview

During her career on the naval base, West earned another master’s degree, in public administration from the University of Oklahoma. 

West retired in 1998 after 42 years. 

A Proud Legacy

Even after retirement, West remained committed to continuing her education. 

Despite suffering a stroke that impaired her hearing, vision, and use of her right side, West managed to earn a Ph.D. in public administration at the age of 70.

In 2018, she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Hall of Fame, one of the highest honors bestowed by Air Force Space Command. 

Now 91, West currently lives in King George County, Virginia, with her husband Ira West, of 65 years.

The next time we use GPS, let’s remember the woman who was the mastermind behind the invention: Gladys West, a true hidden figure of American history. 

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