When we think of hidden figures, our minds immediately go to the amazing NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson who worked for NASA during the space race, but there is another African American mathematician who is also considered one of America’s hidden figures. Meet Gladys West, the mathematician whose contributions led to the development of the Global Positioning System or what we know as GPS.
Gladys West was born in rural Virginia to sharecroppers. She knew that the best way to build a better life for herself was through education. Ms. West was valedictorian of her high school class and earned a full scholarship to Virginia State University where she chose to study mathematics. She graduated in 1952 and started work as a teacher before returning to school to earn her Master’s degree in 1955. After receiving her Master’s, she got a job at the Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground. At Dahlgren, Ms. West did what she had always done – she worked hard and excelled. She was known for solving complex math equations by hand and she then went on to program computers to solve these complex math equations for her. Ms. West moved up the ranks and continued to work on major projects like the Naval Ordinance Research Calculator, which figured out Pluto’s movement in relation to Neptune. Ms. West continued her work by becoming project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry to monitor the oceans. From this work, she programmed a computer to properly calculate the orbit of satellites. Ms. West’s work had a domino effect. From Seasat to the calculations of the orbit of satellites, she progressed from these computations to being able to determine the Earth’s exact shape, which laid the groundwork for what would become modern GPS.
Through all of her work, Ms. West never stopped learning. She earned a second Master’s degree in public administration in 1973. After over 40 years working for Dahlgren, she retired and decided to pursue her PhD. However, she suffered a stroke shortly thereafter. Rather than have this be the end, Ms. West viewed this as another beginning. She worked hard on her recovery and never gave up. Ms. West, or should we say Dr. West, earned her PhD in 2000 in public administration and policy affairs.
Dr. West is not considered a hidden figure for nothing. Her work went largely unnoticed until she sent in a short autobiography for a function through her college sorority. Her Alpha Kappa Alpha sisters were not only surprised by all that Dr. West had accomplished in her lifetime, but they wanted to make sure that the world knew what an integral role she played in developing GPS. In 2018, Dr. West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame and recognized by the Virginia General Assembly for her contributions to the development of GPS.
GPS is such an integral part of our everyday lives and all of the work we do at Straughan. It allows us to place things in a relevant location in the real world and is fundamental to pretty much every background aspect of any project, across all of our different service areas. We are inspired by Dr. West’s hard work and innovation.