Meet Gladys West: One Of The 'Hidden Figures' Behind The Creation Of The GPS System

Gladys West (right) with her husband Ira West/Photo credit: Mike Morones/Free Lance-Star

When 87-year-old dedicated member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, Gladys West, put together a short biography for herself to be recognized as one of her chapter’s beloved senior members, she had no idea that what she would share would be so noteworthy and surprise her sorority sisters. She outlined her outstanding 42-year career at the Dahlgren, VA Naval Base as a mathematician. One line in her bio stood out as she described her contributions to the team who began to develop the early Global Positioning System, or GPS as we know it today, in the 1950s and 1960s. West's recollection of this time in her professional career soon revealed her as a "hidden figure" amongst her proud sorority sisters to have contributed to the creation of a technological system that has changed how we navigate the world. 

West recounts having no idea, at the time, that her recordings of satellite locations and accompanying mathematical calculations would become today's GPS system and affect so many areas of life. She remarks, "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.'" And apparently, she did just that.  

Last year, West was honored during a Black History Month celebration and U.S. Navy Captain Godfrey Weekes, who served alongside West, described how significant of a role she played during her time spent at Dahlgren. "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," said Weekes.

Photo via: U.S. Navy 

Young Gladys Brown grew up in Dinwiddie County just outside of Richmond, VA. At the time, she knew that she didn’t want to work in a nearby factory or pick tobacco, corn, or cotton in nearby fields as her parents had; to provide for their family. She quickly saw education as a "way out" and after graduating from high school as the valedictorian of her class, earned herself a scholarship to attend Virginia State University. There, she majored in mathematics, became a teacher in Sussex County, VA, and ultimately returned to school to complete her Master’s degree.

She began her career at the Dahlgren, VA Naval Support Facility in 1956 as the second Black woman hired at the base and one of only four bBack employees at the time. As fate would have it, she began to date one of her fellow black mathematicians, Ira West, and they married in 1957. Her work at Dahlgren focused on collecting information from orbiting machines that would help to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world. Data was then fed into what became known as "super computers" that were sometimes large enough to fill up entire rooms. West worked on computer software to ensure that calculations for surface elevations and geoid heights were accurate. She took pride in knowing that data that she was entering was correct and she would work tirelessly to make certain of her work’s accuracy.

Photo via: U.S. Navy 

West retired from Dahlgren Naval Base in 1998. Her and husband, Ira, chose to celebrate retiring by traveling to New Zealand and Australia. In spite of multiple health challenges, West remains a dedicated student by completing her Ph.D. one class at a time via a distance program with Virginia Tech.

As for whether or not she uses today's GPS system to aid her in her travels, West has admittedly expressed her preference for using a map instead of relying on her Garmin GPS. She continues to perplex her oldest daughter, Carolyn Oglesby: “I asked her why she didn’t just use the Garmin [GPS] since she knows the equations that she helped write are correct. She says the data points could be wrong or outdated so she has to have that map." 

West's passion for directional accuracy is still very much alive and well and her contributions are now hidden no more. 


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