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Meet Gladys West, The “Hidden Figure” Behind The Creation Of The GPS

The humble history of the woman who brought you Global Positioning System (GPS).

Gone are the days when people are contented with asking other people for directions while on the road. If you are using a smartphone, chances are you are using GPS as well. Now everyone knows what a GPS is, but do you know who Gladys West is? She made it possible for you to navigate easy peasy.

Gladys West is a mathematician, one of those who developed Global Positioning System. She isn’t exactly a household name, but interested in her increased when she wrote a biography for a sorority function, in which she mentioned her important contribution.

Gladys West pictured with her husband.

When Gladys West, an 87-year-old dedicated member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, put together a short biography for herself to be recognized as one of her chapter’s beloved senior members. She had no idea that what she would share would be so noteworthy to the surprise of her sorority sisters. She outlined her outstanding 42-year career at the Dahlgren, VA Naval Base as a mathematician.

West revolutionized how we navigate the world.

One line in her bio stood out as she described her contributions to the team who began to develop the early Global Positioning System, or GPS as we know it today, in the 1950s and 1960s. West’s recollection of this time in her professional career soon revealed her as a “hidden figure” amongst her proud sorority sisters to have contributed to the creation of a technological system that has changed how we navigate the world.

West got involved in programming early computers and collecting information from orbiting machines.


The data that she mined and her calculations will prove invaluable in the development of GPS. Back then, she and her colleagues have no idea how their work will change the modern world. Her work at Dahlgren focused on collecting data from orbiting satellites that would help to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world.

Data was then fed into what became known as “super computers” that were sometimes large enough to fill up entire rooms. West worked on computer software to ensure that calculations for surface elevations and geoid heights were accurate. She took pride in knowing that data that she was entering was correct.

She would work tirelessly to make certain of her work’s accuracy.

GPS is used in almost every smart device, from mobile phones to pet collars. It definitely changed how we explore, work, and navigate.

“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,'” West said in an interview with The Associated Press.

She would continue to work on it for 40 more years until she retired in 1998. After a life of complex data analysis and computations, she went on a well-deserved vacation with her husband, a fellow black mathematician, Ira West, whom she married in 1957.

Gladys suffered a major stroke, but not only did she recover, she also returned to school and earned a doctorate. Her strength and determination made her survive cancer and heart surgery years later.

Now Gladys West is in her late eighties, working on her memoir and spending quality time with family. Despite her extraordinary contribution to the creation of GPS, according to her oldest daughter, West still likes to have a paper map on hand.

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