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Celebrating Black History Month: Gladys West

Gladys West

All modern navigation devices that utilize GPS data owe their existence to Gladys West. Her contribution extends not just to the system she helped develop, but to everything that system has made possible in the decades since: from guiding nearly every form of transportation to becoming a fundamental tool in numerous branches of scientific research. Today’s ecological research, for instance, would not be possible without the precise location coordinates GPS systems provide to keep track of sample sites and maintain collection records. By plotting her own course, Dr. West forged a path from rural Virginia to the creation of one of the world's most vital technologies, supporting our science - and our daily lives - to this day. 


Gladys West grew up in rural Virginia in the 1930s. Her parents were sharecroppers and she spent most of her time working on their family's farm, but West knew from the beginning wanted to pursue a less traditional path. At the time Virginia State offered full scholarships to the top two students at her high school; between her responsibilities at home and the jobs she took to save money, West devoted herself to earning one of these scholarships, ultimately graduating as valedictorian from her high school. Having achieved her goal, West earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics (she later earned a second masters and eventually PhD in public administration - completing her dissertation at age 70). 


From there, West went on to lead one of the most influential projects ever conducted in the field of applied mathematics: a complete geodesic model of the earth. In 1956, West found a job at the Dahlgren, Virginia Naval Proving Ground, where she quickly became known for her skill in tackling problems that had previously stumped her colleagues; her contributions to a successful paper on the relative trajectories of Neptune and Pluto lead to a leadership position in a project that was using satellite data to model the shape of the earth. She spent a decade as one of the world's first programmers, working with the new IBM 7030 Stretch computer to generate her models – a process that often involved manually checking hundreds of calculations by hand. Her years of work ultimately paid off, and Dr. West's geodesic model became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS) we still use today. 

Article by: Rosemary Wills


Butterly, A. (2018, May 20). 100 Women: Gladys West - the 'hidden figure' of GPS. BBC News. 

Mathematician inducted into Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame. (2018, Dec. 7). Air Force Space Command (Archived). 

Matthias, M. (2022, Oct. 23). Gladys West. Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Mohdin, A. (2020, Nov. 19). Gladys West: the hidden figure who helped invent GPS. The Guardian. 


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