If you rely on a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to guide you on unfamiliar roads, you have Gladys West to thank for it.
West, 87, is a retired mathematician living in north-eastern Virginia. Her former employer, the U.S. Navy, credits her with playing a pivotal role in developing GPS technology. From 1956 until her retirement in 1998, West worked with a team of engineers at a Navy base in Dahlgren, Virginia.
She recorded satellite locations and performed complex mathematical calculations that led to a remarkably precise system of pinpointing geographical positions. Her contributions were recently touted by her college sorority sister Gwendolyn James.
A fellow member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, James learned about West’s ground-breaking work through a short autobiographical statement that West submitted ahead of a sorority function. James alerted the Associated Press, and now West is enjoying some long-deserved recognition as a pioneer.
“Her story is amazing,” James told the Associated Press. “GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever. There is not a segment of this global society — military, auto industry, cell phone industry, social media, parents, NASA, etc. — that does not utilize the Global Positioning System.”
West attended Virginia State University on a full scholarship and worked as a math teacher for two years before earning a master’s degree. When she was hired by the naval base in 1956, she was one of only four African-American employees there.
In an recent interview, West recalled her early satellite-data projects and said she enjoyed working with engineers and scientists in the 1950s and ’60s because “they were addressing real problems facing our country.” Her colleagues, she said, “were experts in their areas and could see what was needed in the future.”
West’s achievements were recognized by U.S. Navy Captain Godfrey Weekes, a former officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Centre Dahlgren Division, in a 2017 message he wrote about Black History Month.
“She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy (science that measures the size and shape of the Earth) and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data,” he wrote. “As Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come.”
West remains active in retirement. In 2000, she earned a doctoral degree in public administration from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, known as Virginia Tech. She is now writing a memoir.
She marvels that the technology she helped create is used all over the planet. “It is awesome how GPS technology has changed the thinking and the capabilities of the world, especially on travel,” she said. But she admits that she and her husband are adapting to using the GPS in their own cars.