Almost everyone knows what the Global Positioning System (GPS) is and how it has changed the way people navigate the world.
Incorporated into several devices such as cars and cell phones, as well as, social media, this technological system allows accurate determination of geographical locations which makes navigation easier as compared to the past.
Yet, not everyone knows about Gladys West and the pivotal role she played in birthing the GPS. Not a household name, interest in the 90-year-old mathematician increased when she wrote a biography for a sorority function in which she outlined her invaluable contribution – one of the few women who worked towards the development of the GPS in the 1950s and 1960s.
For 42 years, West worked with a team of engineers that developed the GPS before retiring in 1998.
When she was hired in 1956 as a mathematician at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, she did not know that her subsequent work at the Navy base in Virginia would change the world.
Before becoming one of a small group of women who did computing for the U.S. military in the absence of electronic systems, West worked as a math teacher for two years in Sussex County.
This was after she had earned a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), where she graduated at the top of her class.
After obtaining her master’s degree, she joined the Dahlgren, Virginia naval base in 1956, where she became one of only four black employees, according to a report by the Associated Press.
One was a mathematician named Ira West, and the two dated for 18 months before they married in 1957, the report added.
West’s work at Dahlgren involved collecting data from orbiting satellites that would help to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world.
She would then input the data into giant computers that could fill entire rooms while working on computer software that ensured that calculations for surface elevations and geoid heights were accurate.
West worked long days and nights doing such complex calculations and recording data, yet she was “ecstatic” about her role, she told the AP, as she was able to “work with some of the greatest scientists working on these projects.”
“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,’” the Richmond native and daughter of field workers added.
Her hard work earned her recognition by her supervisor,
Ralph Neiman, who recommended her for a commendation in 1979 – project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project.
Seasat was launched in 1978 and was the first satellite designed for remote sensing of oceans with synthetic aperture radar.
“This involved planning and executing several highly complex computer algorithms which have to analyze an enormous amount of data,” Neiman wrote. “You have used your knowledge of computer applications to accomplish this in an efficient and timely manner.”
Captain Godfrey Weekes, a then-commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, recently summed up the fundamental role played by West.
“She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data,” he said.
After a life of complex calculations and data analysis, West retired in 1998 and although it was reported that she suffered a stroke, she soon recovered and was able to further her education to earn a doctorate.
Twenty years after her retirement, the mathematics genius has now been officially honoured for her hard work. On December 6, 2018, she was presented with the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers award for her decades of contributions to the Air Force’s space program.
The award is one of Air Force’s Space Commands highest honours. “It pays tribute to the leaders of the early years of the Air Force space program, as well as the subsequent innovators whose vision and perseverance overcame the obstacles of the unknown, those who transformed the cutting edge of technology into operational systems, and those who dedicated their lives to exploring space in support of our national security concerns,” said Black Press USA.
West’s recognition has been received with much excitement but what should interest many people is the fact that she is still doing her calculations.
Even though she uses the GPS when travelling, she still prefers to refer to a paper map since “the data points could be wrong or outdated.”