Gladys West was born as Gladys Mae Brown in Sutherland, Virginia, in Dinwiddie County, a rural county south of Richmond. Her family was an African-American farming family in a community of sharecroppers, and she spent much of her childhood working on her family’s small farm.
Her mother worked at a tobacco factory, and her father was a farmer who also worked for the railroad. West’s parents were both huge inspirations for her and led her to the strong and driven woman that West is seen to be in history today. West realized early on that she did not want to work in the tobacco fields or factories like the rest of her family, and decided that education would be her way out.
When West was on her way to graduate high school, the only obstacle keeping her from higher education was a financial one. Her parents tried their best to save but supporting an entire family on a sharecropper’s wage didn’t leave much left for West’s education. West began babysitting to help save but ultimately, her superior academic performance made the difference. At West’s high school, the top two students of each graduating class received full-ride scholarships to Virginia State College (now formally University), a historically black public university. West, with her determination and discipline, graduated valedictorian in 1948 and received the much needed scholarship. She was initially unsure what college major to pursue at VSU, as she had excelled in all her subjects in high school. She was encouraged to major in science or math because of their difficulty, and West ultimately chose to study mathematics, a subject mostly studied at her college by men. She also became a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. West graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. After graduating, she taught math and science for two years in Waverly, Virginia. West then returned to VSU to complete her Master of Mathematics degree, graduating in 1955. Afterward, she briefly took another teaching position in Martinsville, Virginia.
In 1956, West was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center), where she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees. West was a programmer in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division for large-scale computers and a project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data. Concurrently, West earned a second master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.
In the early 1960s, she participated in an award-winning astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Subsequently, West began to analyze data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the Earth’s shape. She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. West consistently put in extra hours, cutting her team’s processing time in half. She was recommended for a commendation in 1979.
Gladys West and Sam Smith look over data from the Global Positioning System at Dahlgren in 1985
From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, West programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth – an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. Generating an extremely accurate model required her to employ complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. West’s team once discovered an error during the study and out of all of the brilliant minds, she was the only one that was able to solve it. West’s data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).
In 1986, West published Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter, a 51-page technical report from The Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC). The guide was published to explain how to increase the accuracy of the estimation of geoid heights and vertical deflection, important components of satellite geodesy. This was achieved by processing the data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984.
West worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, retiring in 1998. After retiring, she completed a PhD in Public Administration from Virginia Tech.
West’s vital contributions to GPS technology were rediscovered when a member of West’s sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha read a short biography Gladys had submitted for an alumni function.
West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the highest honors bestowed by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). The AFSPC press release at the time called her one of “the so-called ‘Hidden Figures’ part of the team who did computing for the US military in the era before electronic systems” – a reference to the 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was adapted into the film Hidden Figures. Capt. Godfrey Weekes, commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in 2018, described the role played by West in the development of Global Positioning System: “She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy, 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.” West agreed, saying that she had no idea at the time that her work would affect so many: “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.'”
As an alumna of Virginia State University Dr. Gladys West was nominated and won the award for “Female Alumna of the Year” at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Awards sponsored by HBCU Digest in 2018.
Main achievements: Development of the satellite geodesy models
Gladys Mae West is an American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS). In 2018, West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame and was selected by the BBC as part of their 100 Women of.
25 March 2023 at 16:07
Sounds like a brilliant mind! GPS may well be with us and in use, at least one way or another, until the end of time.
Nice biographical sketch, Mario!
25 March 2023 at 18:51