Meet Gladys West, the Black woman who developed GPS technology


Many of us use GPS (Global Positioning System) technology every day, from adding location information to social media posts to letting car navigation systems take us to our destinations, but we do so without realizing how or by whom it was invented. We use it without realizing how or by whom it was invented.

Albert Einstein, of course, is famous for the fact that GPS would not exist without his invention of the special and general theories of relativity. On the other hand, Gladys West is an equally important figure, but most people probably don’t know her name.

Born in 1930, West was a mathematician who collected and analyzed satellite data from the Earth’s surface and built detailed models to help develop the technology for the Global Navigation Satellite System (GPS), which allows people to accurately determine their location anywhere on the planet.

West graduated from historically black Virginia State University with a bachelor’s and master’s degree and served as a mathematician at the Naval Proving Ground in Virginia, becoming the second black woman ever hired. At the time, the Navy was introducing computers, and West did computer programming, as Dorothy Vaughn did at NASA, as represented by Octavia Spencer in the movie “Hidden Figures.

As a computer programmer, West specialized in mainframe computers and data processing systems to analyze the information collected from satellites. She was also the project manager for OceanSat, the first satellite for remote sensing of the oceans.

In the mid-1970s and 1980s, she programmed the IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer, which used complex algorithms to calculate changes in gravity, tides and other forces that distort the shape of the Earth, ultimately optimizing the orbit of the Global Positioning System (GPS) for extremely accurate geodetic measurements. increasingly complex calculations of the Earth model (geoid),” an Air Force press release on the Space and Missile Hall of Fame induction states.

Did you know that there has been a lot of talk about West on social media lately? That’s because West’s significant accomplishments were recognized during Black History Month.

West retired from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, formerly the Naval Proving Ground, in 1998, returned to school and completed her doctoral dissertation at age 70 after suffering a stroke.

“She rose through the ranks, working on satellite geodesy and contributing to GPS accuracy and satellite data measurements,” said her commander, Capt. Godfrey Weeks, on his 2018 induction into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. Gladys West began her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956 and had little concept of the long-term impact of her work on the world.”

Gladys West, née Gladys Mae Brown, (born October 27, 1930, Sutherland, Virginia), American mathematician known for her work contributing to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Gladys Mae Brown was born in rural Virginia, where her parents owned a small farm in an area populated mostly by sharecroppers. Growing up, when not in school, she spent much of her time helping to harvest crops on the family farm, an occupation she knew many of her peers would continue into adulthood. In her community the only clear options for a young Black girl’s future were continuing to farm or working at a tobacco-processing plant.