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Black History Month: Dr. Gladys West, Mathematician

This week for Black History Month, we’re celebrating Dr. Gladys West, an American mathematician who was responsible for GPS Technology.

GPS or the Global Positioning System is something we use every day. You use it when searching for your local shops, checking directions, or checking traffic for your daily commute. GPS is with us everywhere we go, and it was created by Dr. Gladys West.

Early Years

West was born as Gladys Mae Brown in Sutherland, Virginia. 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. Gladys knew that she didn’t want to work in the fields. When she learned that the valedictorian and salutatorian from her high school would earn a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), she studied hard and graduated at the top of her class.

She majored in mathematics and then taught two years in Sussex County before she went back to school for her master’s degree. 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, where she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees.

In the early 1960s, she participated in an award-winning astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. West then began to analyze data from satellites, especially satellite altimeters such as GEOS 3, putting together models of the Earth's shape.

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 additional undulations, known as the geoid. Generating an extremely accurate geopotential 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 model ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

West worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, retiring in 1998.

Current Times

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.

In 2018, West completed a PhD via a distance-learning program with the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.

For her contributions, particularly to the development of GPS, Dr. West was inducted into the United States Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018.

West continues to prefer using a paper map over a tracking system, saying she still trusts her brain above all. She stated, "I'm a doer, hands-on kind of person. If I can see the road and see where it turns and see where it went, I am more sure."

References and Further Reading: