Black Women Invent-Hers Series: Gladys West GPS Technology

by Gabrielle Ozynski

We’re taking a look at black women who’ve been overlooked and not given nearly enough credit for their contributions and inventions that are now used world wide:

In the 1950s and ’60s African-American teacher and mathematician, Gladys West was employed at a US Navy Base in the state of Virginia in 1956, one of only four black employees. There for 42 years West and a team of engineers worked tirelessly to develop the Geographical Positioning System – or GPS as we now know it.

A university sorority sister to West, Gwen James, felt she deserved publicity telling the Associated Press:

“Her story is amazing. 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 utilise the Global Positioning System.”

James told how West,”collected location data from orbiting machines and input the data into giant supercomputers, while using early computer software to analyze surface elevations. She worked long days and nights recording satellite locations and on complex calculations. Although the work was tedious, she was ‘ecstatic’ about the opportunity ‘to work with some of the greatest scientists’.”

West’s abilities did not go unnoticed: her supervisor ‘recommended her for a commendation in 1979’. A Captain Godfrey Weekes, a former officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, said, “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.”

She retired in 1998, and despite a stroke went on to get her PhD.

The daughter of farmworkers modestly said of her amazing work and its massive impact on the 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.’”


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