Pioneers in Tech: Gladys West, the “hidden figure” of GPS
We all rely on GPS nearly every day and may frequently marvel at how much easier it makes life. (Think about it: When was the last time you were lost?) But how often do we think about the people behind the technology? In the case of GPS, you have Gladys West, a 93-year-old woman from Sutherland, Virginia, to thank. Let’s dive into this month’s edition of Pioneers in Tech.
Early in life, West recognized that an education was her path out of the sharecropper life led by her parents. She studied hard. As valedictorian of her high school graduating class, she secured a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), where she earned a bachelor’s and, additionally, a master’s degree in mathematics. In 1956, she was hired by the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia. She was one of only four Black staffers (and only the second Black female employee).
Meanwhile at Dahlgren, West was assigned to a project focused on satellite geodesy, or measuring the size and shape of the Earth. These carefully calculated mathematical models became part of the GPS system.
Mapping the world
West worked 42 years at the Naval Proving Ground, where she met her husband, Ira, also a mathematician. After retirement, West suffered a stroke. Nevertheless, she was inspired in recovery by the prospect of completing her PhD (which she did). Her numerous accolades include the first Freedom of the Seas Exploration and Innovation Award from the National Museum of the Surface Navy, and she has written her memoirs entitled It Began with a Dream.
Interestingly, in this 2018 AP News article, West indicated she preferred using paper maps to GPS.
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