Meet Gladys West, the Black woman who developed GPS technology
Most of us use global positioning system (GPS) technology on a regular basis, whether it’s to add a location to a social media post or to ask our car’s navigation system to take us to our destination. We do it without giving a second thought to how or by whom GPS technology was invented.
Of course, Albert Einstein is well-known, and GPS would not exist without his special and general relativity ideas. Gladys West, on the other hand, is equally as essential, yet most people don’t know her name.
West, who was born in 1930, worked as a mathematician, collecting and analyzing satellite data of the Earth’s surface until she developed a detailed model and assisted in the development of the technology that led to GPS, the global navigational satellite system that can accurately determine your location anywhere on Earth.
West became the second Black woman ever hired at the Naval Proving Ground in Virginia, where she worked as a mathematician, after graduating from Virginia State College, a historically Black college, with a bachelor’s and master’s degree. The Navy was bringing in computers at the time, and West programmed them, much like Dorothy Vaughan did for NASA, as represented by Octavia Spencer in the film “Hidden Figures.”
West specialized in large-scale computer systems and data-processing systems for the analysis of information collected from satellites in her employment as a computer programmer. She was also the project manager for Seasat, the first satellite to conduct remote sensing of the Earth’s oceans.
“She programmed an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what eventually became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape,” according to an Air Force press release from her induction into the Space and Missiles Hall of Fame
You may have noticed mentions of West on your social media feeds recently, as she is being honored for her significant accomplishments during Black History Month.
West returned to school after retiring from the Naval Surface Warfare Center (previously the Naval Proving Ground) in 1998 and, despite a stroke, finished her Ph.D. at the age of 70.
“She ascended through the ranks, worked on satellite geodesy, and contributed to the precision of GPS and the measurement of satellite data,” said commanding officer Captain Godfrey Weekes when she was admitted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018. Gladys West began her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, with little concept that her work would have a long-term impact on the world.”