How Gladys West uncovered the ‘Hidden Figures’ of GPS

March 19, 2018  - By

For Black History month in February, the Free-Lance Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia, profiled a woman few of us know about — Gladys West.

Capt. Godfrey Weekes, then-commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, described to the newspaper the “integral role” played by West.

Gladys West’s work helped develop the Global Positioning System. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

“She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data,” he said. “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.”

West collected data from the satellites, focusing on information that helped to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world. Data was entered into large-scale super computers that filled entire rooms, and she worked on computer software that processed geoid heights (precise surface elevations).

As a girl growing up in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, Gladys knew she didn’t want to work in the fields or a tobacco factory like her parents did.

“I was ecstatic,” she said of her career. “I was able to come from Dinwiddie County and be able to work with some of the greatest scientists working on these projects.”

Jim Colvard, technical director at NSWC Dahlgren from 1973 to 1980, knew West as a student in his graduate program and as a professional employee. “She was an excellent student and a respected and productive professional,” he wrote in an email. “Her competence, not her color, defined her.”

Gladys West, at Dahlgren with Sam Smith in 1985, looks over data from the Global Positioning System she helped develop. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.