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

Feb 27, 2021

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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.

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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.

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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 photo by Dean Mitchell/Getty Images.

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