11 Dr. Gladys West: Pioneer of GPS Technology

KC Celestine

[The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is: 9.31]

Dr. Gladys West was born into a family of sharecroppers on October 27, 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia. “I thought at first I needed to go to the city. I thought that would get me out of the country and out of the fields,” she remembers. “But then as I got more educated, went into the higher grades, I learned that education was the thing to get me out.” In 1948, she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class which helped her earned a full scholarship to Virginia State College (now University). She earned her Bachelors in Mathematics. After teaching for two years, she returned to college to earn her Masters degree in Mathematics from Virginia State.

Picture of Dr. Gladys West
Dr. Gladys West

In 1956, she was hired by the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, VA, (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center). Here, she was a mathematician who analyzed satellite data. She first worked as a human computer by doing longhand math. Dr. West said, “We would come in and sit at our desks and we would logic away, go through all the steps anyone would have to do to solve the mathematical problem.” She later transitioned to computer programming. “Nine times out of 10 they (the computers) weren’t completely right,” she recalls, “so you had to analyze them and find out what was different to what you expected.” Dr. West was the second Black woman hired and the fourth Black employee. Another Black mathematician on base, Ira V. West, became her husband in 1957. Dr. West and her husband raised three children, Carolyn, David, and Michael.

In 1962, she helped program Naval Ordinance Research Calculator (NORC) for Project 29V, which established the motion of Pluto relative to Neptune, through 5 billion arithmetic calculations and 100 hours of computer calculation which was recognized with a merit award. Following this, she joined the Seasat radar altimetry project as project manager. Seasat was the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans using radar to measure the distance between the satellite and the surface of Earth’s oceans. Over the years, Dr. West used the information from Seasat and other satellites to refine an increasingly detailed and accurate mathematical model of the actual shape of the earth – called a “geoid”. This computational modeling would prove essential to modern Global Positioning System (GPS), as the technology relies on this mathematical model in order to determine the position of a receiver.

a GPS displayed on a phone that is attached to the windshield of a vehicle
GPS displayed on a phone

In 1998, Dr. West retired after 42 years of work. She suffered a stroke five months after retiring. While she was recovering, she set a new goal: “all of a sudden, these words came into my head: ‘You can’t stay in the bed, you’ve got to get up from here and get your PhD,'” she recalls.

On December 6, 2018, Dr. West was inducted into the U.S. Air Force’s Hall of Fame; the Air Force hailed her as one of “the leaders of the early years of the Air Force space program.” Dr. West says that she hopes her example will inspire another generation of female pioneers. “I think I did help,” she reflects. “The world is opening up a little bit and making it easier for women. But they still gotta fight.”


Writing Prompts

Narrative: Can you imagine taking a trip and the person navigating only has a paper map? Write a story about how different traveling would be without GPS technology. In your story include a description of how you would feel and how much longer or shorter you think the trip would take. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.3

Informative: Dr. Gladys West worked as a human computer before becoming a computer programmer. Explain in your own words why math and science classes are important. Give three examples of ways math and science are used today. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.2

Persuasive: Dr. Gladys West didn’t earn her PhD until she retired. Do you have a big goal that you may not have time to accomplish right now? Write a persuasive letter to your future self about the goal you want to accomplish. Explain the specific reason(s) and how you can achieve this goal. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1

Creation/Application: Plan a trip using only a paper map to some place you aren’t familiar with. Write out detailed instructions as best as you can. If possible, use your instructions to navigate to this new place. If you aren’t able to visit, pull up the navigation on the GPS and compare them to yours. Where you accurate? How hard or easy was it to plan the trip with only a paper map?

Works Cited

“Gladys West.” Ncwit.org, ncwit.org/profile/gladys-west. Accessed 30 June 2022.

Johnson, Bethany. “GLADYS MAE WEST (1930- ).” BlackPast, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/gladys-mae-west-1930. Accessed 30 June 2022.

Katherine. “Dr. Gladys West: The “Hidden Figure” Who Pioneered GPS Technology.” A Mighty Girl, www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=22639. Accessed 30 June 2022.

Reynolds, Lauren Mackenzie. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math. Accessed 30 June 2022.


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