Did you know that a black woman from Virginia was instrumental in creating a convenience we use every day and almost can’t live without? Yes indeed, Dr. Gladys West invented the GPS or the Global Positioning System and has finally received the recognition she deserves by being inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame by the United States Air Force during a ceremony held at the Pentagon this week.
The 87-year-old scholar knew as a child that she did not want to work in fields, picking tobacco, corn, and cotton or in a factory, beating tobacco leaves for cigarettes and pipes like her parents did. She said, “I realized I had to get an education to get out.” And that she did, studying math at #VirginiaState and graduating top of her class. She became a teacher for two years, then went back to school for her Masters.
In 1956, West began to work at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, where she was the second black woman ever to be employed. There, she collected data from satellites, and that job is what eventually led to the development of the Global Positioning System. In 1986, West published “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter,” a 60-page illustrated guide, which was based off data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984. She worked at Dahlgren for 42 years and retired in 1998.
West’s humble character is part of why many people were unaware of her role in the development of the device for decades. She said, “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.’”
In 2017, Capt. Godfrey Weekes, the then-commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, described the “integral role” West played in a Black History Month message. He wrote, “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.”
Congratulations to a “hidden figure,” Dr. Gladys West! Thank you for your great contribution to science and your #BlackGirlMagic ✨