Dr. Gladys West and the Invention of GPS

In 2018, at the age of 88, Gladys West was recognized for her contribution to the development of GPS.

Imagine you are on your way home from a friend’s house and can’t remember which way to go. Your GPS can help you. When Dr. Gladys West was growing up GPS did not exist.

Dr. West was born on October 27, 1930, in Sutherland, Virginia. At an early age she decided to focus on her studies. Gladys excelled in all subjects at school and was valedictorian of her high school class. In 1952 she graduated from Virginia State College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics. She furthered her education with a master’s degree in Mathematics in 1955.

After school, Gladys was hired at the Naval Proving Ground in 1956. She was one of four Black employees and only the second Black woman to work there. She studied the earth’s surface through mathematical equations. She and her team worked on IBM stretch computers. The computers were the first of their kind and were the size of refrigerators! Gladys learned how to write computer programs. One of the programs she wrote was used to create a model of the precise shape of the earth. This data became the foundation of the development of Global Positioning System (GPS).

With GPS we can travel from one location to another without getting lost, thanks to the detailed programming work Dr. West did in her career. Dr. West did not realize what an impact GPS would have on the world. She was passionate about the work she did, once explaining, “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.’”

What Do You Think? What does Gladys West’s commitment to her studies teach us about working hard in school?

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Photo Credit: Adrian Cadiz/DVIDS/Department of Defense