For 42 years, West worked with a team of engineers that developed the Geographical Positioning System, or GPS, before retiring in 1998. It would be her sorority sister, Gwen James, who recently discovered this before sharing it with the Associated Press.
“Her story is amazing,” said James, a fellow member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. to The AP. “GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever. There is not a segment of this global society—military, auto industry, cell phone industry, social media, parents, NASA, etc.—that does not utilize the Global Positioning System.”
After graduating from Virginia State University on a full academic scholarship, West began working as a math teacher for two years in Sussex County before obtaining her master’s degree. In 1956, she started working at the naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia, only the second Black woman to work there and one of four Black employees. Her work included collecting location data from orbiting machines and input the data into giant supercomputers, while using early computer software to analyze surface elevations. Although the work was tedious, West told The AP that she “was ecstatic” about the opportunity “to work with some of the greatest scientists.”
West would get recommended for a commendation from her supervisor, and her work was applauded by Capt. Godfrey Weekes, a former officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. Weekes wrote a message about her for Black History Month last year. “She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy (science that measures the size and shape of Earth) and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data. As Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come.”
Like many people of the era, West’s beginnings were humble, the daughter of field laborers. Even today, she finds it hard to comprehend how much her work has benefitted the modern world. “When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’”