|Dr. Gladys West is a mathematician who helped develop the Global Positioning System (GPS). She grew up in Virginia in the 1930s, and as a young black girl, she had limited options for her future.
However, West excelled in school and received a four-year scholarship to Virginia State College where she studied mathematics. After West earned her master’s degree at the same school, she worked as a teacher in segregated Virginia schools.
In 1956, West started working at a U.S. weapons laboratory where she helped program the Naval Ordinance Research Calculator (NORC).
In 1978, she was promoted to project manager of Seasat, a satellite that collects data on Earth’s oceans. Later, West worked on GEOSAT, a satellite that measures sea surface heights. The data collected by GEOSAT was used to create computer models of Earth’s surface, which her team analyzed to accurately model the shape of Earth’s oceans under the influence of gravity. This model, called the geoid, was one of the foundations of the GPS system.
She was not formally credited for her work at the time, but in 2018, the Virginia General Assembly honored her contributions to the GPS system at a ceremony.