While taking a road trip, looking for that hot new restaurant or looking for your new office building, what tool has come in handy more than a Global Positioning System (GPS)? Maybe a car, but that’s beside the point. Having a GPS on our phones makes getting around more efficient. And while we may not give our GPS a second thought once we’ve reached our destination, there is a fascinating story behind it.
The prominent hidden figure, Dr. Gladys West, was a true pioneer who pushed past racial barriers and contributed to the invention of the GPS. Without her curious spirit and quest for knowledge, she may never have ended up where she needed to be.
It All Began With a Dream
Born in 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia, West spent much of her childhood — when not in school — harvesting crops on her family farm. In her memoir, It Began With A Dream, she recalls walking the three miles to the segregated, one-room schoolhouse “with rusty, decrepit furniture, sometimes leaky ceilings and always hand-me-down books.”
Challenging Racial Barriers
There weren’t many opportunities for young Black women in her community that didn’t involve farming or working at a tobacco plant. But West wanted and knew she was destined for more. She overcame racial barriers in science and math.
“Every day, I wished and dreamed of having more — more books, more classrooms, more teachers and more time to dream and imagine what life would be like if only I could fly away from the strenuous and seemingly never-ending work on our family farm,” she said in her memoir.
It wouldn’t be long before that dream came true.
Dr. Gladys West Early Life
West worked and studied hard, graduating as valedictorian from her high school. Her high academic performance earned her a scholarship to the HBCU Virginia State College — which is now Virginia State University. It was there that West earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, finishing up in 1955.
Finding Opportunity in the Navy
Before returning for her master’s, West worked as a math teacher. In between earning her degrees, she tried finding a job with the government; however, she was unsuccessful due to racial segregation and sexism. In 1956, West was finally offered a job with the U.S. Navy.
During her long and successful career, West returned to school and earned a second master’s degree in public administration from The University of Oklahoma in 1973. After retiring in 1998 from her job with the U.S. Navy at the age of 68, West attended the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) and earned a Ph.D. in public administration and policy affairs at 70 years old.
Excelling Above the Rest
In her memoir, West recounts how while earning her Ph.D. at VPI, she assumed her fellow counterparts — many of them highly-educated white men — would be smarter than her. They had gone to better schools and were afforded better opportunities. However, she found she could hold her own and often performed better than her peers.
“I found out I was pretty smart, especially compared to some of my classmates who didn’t know as much as I did. Some of them failed tests and were given the exams over so they could stay in the Ph.D. program,” she said in her memoir.
A Brilliant Student
West also explained how studying at an HBCU taught her more than the subject knowledge. “Those who did not get their work done because of a lack of effort were sent home. No makeup tests, no breaks, no ifs, ands or buts because they were preparing us for the harsh world of discrimination and prejudice that lie ahead of us,” said West in her memoir.
Breaking Female Barriers
When West joined the U.S. Navy in 1956 as a mathematician for the U.S. Naval Proving Ground — a weapons lab in Virginia. She was one of four Black employees, including Ira V. West, a fellow mathematician, and future husband. Together, she and Ira eventually had three children.
Noteworthy Female Mathematician
While working for the U.S. Naval Proving Ground, West solved complex math equations by hand, though she eventually programmed computers to calculate equations for her. One of her first major projects included the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC) — a program that helped track the movements of Pluto in relation to Neptune. After 100 hours of computer programming and five billion calculations, the project received a merit award.
Inventing the GPS
From there, she became the project manager for SEASAT, an experimental surveillance satellite that operated for 99 days, orbiting Earth. It was designed to collect data on elements of the ocean, including wave heights, icebergs and temperatures. It was the first program to prove satellites could collect useful ocean data.
West and her colleagues could then form GEOSAT — a satellite program that created computer models of the planet’s surface. Through this, satellite movements could be accurately calculated, and a model of Earth formed — also known as a geoid. These models are what helped make the GPS an accurate tool.
In December 2018, Dr. Gladys West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, proving her remarkable impact on science and the Air Force space program.