Questions for Gladys West: Black Woman behind the GPS



BY BRITTANY M. ORIE LEAK

We couldn’t be more familiar with the modern GPS (global positioning system). We rely on it almost daily for travel, finding addresses, riding Uber, and also for delivery. But have we ever thought about who pioneered the technological innovation? This piece of information has never been widely known until now because the mastermind behind it was recently inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018…and her name is Gladys West, an African American U.S. Navy mathematician. Let’s find out a little bit more about her and her humble journey towards her technological breakthrough!

How did she approach education?

Growing up in southern Virginia during the 1930s and 1940s, West would see her parents toiling daily. One parent worked in the fields, picking cotton, corn, and tobacco while the other parent worked in a factory making cigarettes and pipes. Although West saw her parents working on a daily basis, she strongly believed, deep down, that she would not end up working in the fields when she grew up. She knew her education was her way out the cycle of being black and working in the fields, so she set her mind to strive hard in school to ensure she could pursue a more intellectual career.

West learned during her school years that the valedictorian and salutatorian from her high school normally earned a full scholarship to Virginia State College. With this knowledge driving her forward, she worked and studied hard, and graduated at the top of her class. After earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics, she taught briefly at Sussex County before going back to school for her master’s degree. West was always about education, learning, and working her way up. Her passion and dedication to math have led to many breakthroughs.

How did working for the military influence her work behind her contributions to the GPS?

After a short-lived teaching career, West began working for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, in 1956. As the second black woman ever employed there, her work involved collecting data from satellites. After multiple promotions, West’s supervisor urged her to be the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project (the first satellite that could sense oceans!). Soon after, West moved up as a programmer in the Dahlgren Division for high tech computers and as a project manager for other data processing systems used for satellite data.

She went on to publish scientific literature named “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter” and the Naval Surface Weapons Center guide. These guides explained how to increase the accuracy of satellite movement. She also programmed an IBM computer to come up with accurate data to model the shape of the earth. This allowed her to work with intricate algorithms, and her collected data helped to develop the GPS. West worked for Dahlgren for 42 years and retired in 1998.

How did her contributions to GPS technology become known?

Gladys West was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. It is believed that her groundbreaking contributions were discovered by a fellow sorority member when she read a biography about West, which West submitted for an alumni event. Humble, quiet, and always dedicated to her work, West had no idea how much her work would impact the technological world. She never boasted about her accomplishments at Dahlgren, no matter how novel they were. At the time, her greatest concern—if not her only concern—was getting her work done the right way, because accuracy was, and is, paramount in such a job as this! Thankfully, West lived to see her contributions to GPS technology not only come to fruition, but to see it still evolving.

Surely, Gladys West fulfilled her life’s dreams. She escaped the possibility of working in the fields and factories like her parents, and pursued the best education she could. She connected with great, likeminded individuals who helped her rise to her success and pushed her to her highest potential to become a pioneer in technology. Gladys West is truly deserving of her national recognition.

 


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