Gladys West: The Black Mathmetician Behind GPS!
Gladys West is the African American woman who developed GPS Technology. GPS is an acronym for global positioning system (GPS). You and everyone from your Amazon delivery driver, to your military in times of war – across the globe, depend on the timeless ingenuity of Gladys West.
Gladys West is a mathematician. She was born in 1930 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. Although she grew up living and working on a farm, she kept her eyes on the prize. To her, the prize was education. She could literally see the school building from her backyard. So when we say she kept her eyes on the prize, we meant it!
Gladys West, Alive and Well!
Today West is 91 years old. She was one of the women represented in the movie Hidden Figures about black women who worked for NASA. The work she did and trained so many others to do led to the invention of one of the world’s most widely used applications, GPS.
Gladys West went from being an impoverished black country girl who had to walk three miles to and from school every day (through wooded areas and even over streams) to a timeless historical figure.
Gladys West: Humble Beginnings
Although her parents worked hard to save for her college education, unexpected bills continued to deplete what was meant to be her college fund. When a teacher of hers announced that her state would be giving away two academic scholarships for scholastic evidence, West decided that this was her chance. The scholarship paid for the tuition of this genius, but room and board was another story. She had to take a job as a babysitter while in school full time as a result.
She majored in mathematics during her undergraduate education and earned a graduate degree in mathematics as well.
She took a few jobs during that time but none as notable as the one she was offered at a naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia. This made her the second black woman to be hired to work as a programmer at the base. Gladys West was one of only four black employees!
Gladys West: Separate but Equal (Plessy v. Ferguson)
This was during the time of Jim Crow segregation when blacks and whites did not share public institutions to put this into context. If she had to use the bathroom, she had to use the colored bathroom. If she needed to drink water, she would have to drink from a colored fountain designated for black people. It was either that or supply her own refreshments when there were no colored fountains or accommodations available!
When West began her job, the navy was bringing in computers. She was hired to program and code these huge machines that many men had never seen. West was doing the highest job with the lowest self-esteem. Despite her intellectual abilities and career success, West had long wrestled with the feeling that she was inferior. Low self-esteem was deeply ingrained into the psyche of the African American. So much so that it became associated with the culture.
Gladys West: When low Self Esteem among African Americans Was An Expected Norm
An African American who was neither arrogant nor haughty, with merely ample self-esteem was seen as “uppity” and routinely humbled for daring to esteem themselves more highly than what racism would allow. This lack of self-worth drove her to work twice as hard as any white man at her job. On top of being a woman in a male-dominated field, she was black in an almost all-white area.
She quickly climbed the ranks, gaining the admiration and respect of her peers.
Gladys West: The Women Behind GPS Technology
In the early 1960s, West contributed to a study that proved “the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune”, according to a release by the US air force. She received a commendation from her department head in 1979 for her hard work.
Her next job was as project manager for Seasat radar altimetry; Seasat was the first satellite capable of monitoring the oceans. Five people worked under her supervision. In order to provide calculations for an accurate geodetic Earth model, she programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer, which was significantly faster than other machines at that time. The detailed mathematical model of the Earth’s shape provided the basis of what became GPS.