Gladys West is one of the mathematicians responsible for developing the global positioning system, or better known as GPS.
West isn’t exactly a household name, like many of the black women responsible for important achievements in math and science, but the community turned their attention to this “hidden figure” after she mentioned her contribution in a biography she wrote for a sorority function.
Gladys West was one of only four black employees at the Naval Proving Ground in 1956, and she accepted a position at the facility doing calculations, with her early work focusing on satellites. She also programmed early computers and examined the information that determined the location and elevation of satellites in space. Her calculations and collection of data have been a crucial part of the development of what we now know to be GPS.
The technology has changed the way people work, navigate, travel, play, communicate, etc, and pretty much every “smart” device has GPS capabilities these days. However, West and her colleagues back then probably could not have imagined just how much their calculations would affect the world, and she once said in an interview with The Associated Press that when you’re working every day, you’re not thinking ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?”. No, she added, you’re thinking “I’ve got to get this right”.
Gladys West continued working until her retirement in 1998. However, she suffered a major stroke following her well-earned vacation with her husband. She didn’t give up, though, and during her recovery, she worked toward returning to school and earned a doctorate. Her determination led to her regain most of her mobility, and she even survived cancer and heart surgery last year.
And while Gladys West may not be as well known as other STEM women, her contribution to the world is undeniable.