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Travel trailblazer: How Dr. Gladys West pioneered the modern-day GPS

Feb. 27, 2021
5 min read
Travel trailblazer: How Dr. Gladys West pioneered the modern-day GPS
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Every time you pull up a map on your smartphone or in the car to navigate getting from point A to point B, you have Dr. Gladys West to thank.

West is a “Hidden Figure” (a reference to the Black women mathematicians, such as the late Katherine Johnson, who did computing for the U.S. military in the 1950s and 1960s, written about in Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book and portrayed in the subsequent movie) who played a major role in inventing GPS technology. West was only recognized for her role in its invention in 2018 when she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame after a sorority sister discovered and shared her accomplishments.

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Dr. Gladys West. (Photo by Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Born in 1930 in the very rural Dinwiddie County, Virginia, West’s family owned a small farm. They all worked on the farm, but West had other ideas for herself, too.

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“I told myself that I did not like being out in the sun, working from sunrise to sunset and all that. So I made good grades in all my subjects,” West said in a 2018 video interview with the U.S. Navy. The top two students from her high school were given a scholarship to the local college, Virginia State College, and West made sure she got one of them.

“In school, we were separated from the white school, and we had separate buses. And many times we would get the old hand-me-down things from the white school, books that weren’t new like their books were,” says West. “But all of that helped to make us work harder, because you were behind the eight ball to start with, so you had to work harder.”

At the historically Black university, West majored in mathematics. She taught for a few years and returned to Virginia State College to get her master’s degree in the subject. After she graduated, she was hired in 1956 by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Dahlgren, Virginia. She was the second Black woman to be hired and one of four Black employees at the time.

Related: Flying high: The living legacy of aviation leader Capt. Patrice Clarke-Washington

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Her hiring happened to coincide with the naval base bringing in a brand-new (and very large) computer.

“They hired these mathematicians to learn to work this computer but we hadn’t had any computer teaching or knowledge so we had to master this job that they wanted us to do and we had to learn how to program and code for this big computer,” says West in the video. Soon, she began working on developing radio-frequency identification. She processed data gathered from satellites to accurately measure surface elevations on Earth and determine specific locations.

“A lot goes into the scientific computation to generate an RFID, which is the database used in GPS. So the different people who did civilian applications learned to use the database that we generated, and that was the foundation that GPS was built on,” says West.

Related: 6 ways the classic road trip has changed — and stayed the same

West met her husband, Ira West, when she started working at Dahlgren. He was one of her two Black male colleagues. The two have been married for more than 60 years and have three children and seven grandchildren.

After working at the base for more than 40 years, West retired in 1998. But that didn’t stop her from continuing to learn. She earned her Ph.D. in public administration and policy affairs from Virginia Tech, after suffering a stroke. She still lives in Virginia.

“I always was motivated by doing something new and completing something, having a go, because usually, I had a mind of my own. I tend to think for myself, I’m a little impatient with others who don’t think the way I do,” says West in the video.

According to an Air Force Space Command press release from 2018, when she received one of the Air Force space program’s highest distinctions and was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, West was described as having "participated in a path-breaking, award-winning astronomical study" in reference to her work proving the "regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune." This led to West programming an IBM 7030 "Stretch" computer to "deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.”

In 1979, she became the project manager for the Seasat project — Seasat was the first satellite to orbit the Earth that remotely sensed and monitored the oceans.

Simply put, the GPS we use today to navigate everywhere from the supermarket to across the country wouldn’t exist without West's groundbreaking work.

Related: TPG honors Katherine Johnson, the woman who helped propel Americans to space

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more