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Gladys West: Geoid to GPS

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. The star of today's episode laid the foundations of an invention most of us couldn't imagine living without. Coincidentally, today is also her 93rd birthday – Happy Birthday, Gladys West!

 

Gladys West was born in 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia. Her family lived on a farm, which meant Gladys had to work long hours both before and after school. Gladys couldn't imagine living out her life farming and that motivated her to do well in school. She graduated as a valedictorian, which gained her a full scholarship to Virginia State University. She earned a BS in mathematics, spent 2 years teaching math and science, returned to VSU to complete a Master of Mathematics degree, and continued to teach at a different school.

In 1956, Gladys got a position at what is now the Naval Surface Warfare Center, in Dahlgren, Virginia. She hadn't planned to go to the job interview, as it was far from where she lived and there was a high chance she would get rejected because of her race. Surprisingly, they reached out to her, hiring her based solely on her qualifications.

Back then, a position like this one was very unusual for a black person, let alone a black woman. There were only 3 other black people at the centre, one of them being Ira West, to whom she got married and together they have 3 children.

At the centre, Gladys was admired for her ability to solve complicated equations by hand, and later she began programming computers to do it for her. The first project she participated in was an award-winning study proving Pluto's motion is relative to Neptune. Later she was the project manager of Seasat, programming satellites to provide various data about the ocean. From her work on Seasat, there became Geosat. Gladys and her team programmed a computer that delivered increasingly precise data about Earth's surface, from which they determined a model of the exact shape of Earth – a geoid. This model is the foundation of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Gladys continued her studies during and even after her career, earning a master's degree in public administration at 53, and a PhD in public administration and policy affairs at 70.

Gladys West played a key role in the creation of GPS, and even though millions use it daily, only a small fraction would recognize her name. As a black woman, Gladys went most of her life without any recognition for her work. It was as late as 2018 that her contributions to the creation of GPS were formally noticed by the Virginia General Assembly and she was also inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.

Standing behind one of the most used technologies of today, one would never guess that Gladys still prefers using paper maps:)



 

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