Mathematician to GPS Pioneer
February is Black History month. Since this is the last day of the month I didn’t want to month to end without highlighting a very intelligent woman, Dr. Gladys West. She was born on October 27, 1930, in rural Virginia in a community of sharecroppers and was one of four children. She is a great mathematician and a GPS pioneer
Education was the Key
Gladys knew that education would keep her out of working in the fields. Becoming the Valedictorian of her high school class and earning a full scholarship to Virginia State College (now University). She graduated with a BS in Mathematics and later earned in master’s degree in Mathematics from Virginia State. After teaching for several years, she accepted a position at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1956. She was the second black woman they had ever hired, and her position was analyzing data from satellites.
Paper then Programming
At first, it was math on paper. But when computers entered the scene, it meant learning how to program and being ready to catch the computers’ mistakes. Gladys recalled, “Nine times out of 10 they weren’t completely right. So, you had to analyze them to find out what was different from what you expected.” During her 42 years of service, Dr. West played an integral role in the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). After retiring, she completed a PhD in Public Administration from Virginia Tech.
In 2017, Captain Godfrey Weekes, then the commander of the Dahlgren Division, wrote an article for Black History Month about the “integral role” Dr. West played in the development of GPS, observing that “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.”
On December 6, 2018, Dr. West was inducted into the U.S. Air Force’s Hall of Fame in a ceremony in her honor at the Pentagon. The Air Force hailed her as one of “the leaders of the early years of the Air Force space program.”
Dr. West’s computer program is what paved the way for pinpointing a person’s location on the Earth through satellite tracking. It was this work that laid the foundations for today’s GPS.
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