Gladys Mae West (1931) is an African-American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth and the inventor of the GPS.
Born in 1931 in Dinwiddie Country, Virginia, West decided at a very early age that she would use education to make her way out of poverty. Her books were old, her learning conditions weren’t very satisfactory, but she pressed on. West graduated valedictorian of her high school and earned a scholarship to Virginia State University. She was a first-generation college student growing up in the times of segregation. She became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, majored in mathematics and began working as a teacher following graduation.
In 1957, West began her 42-year career as a mathematician at the Dahlgren, Virginia Naval Base as one of four black employees. She was among a small group of women who did calculations by hand for the U.S. military before the development of computers.
Gladys West never knew that her work at a U.S. Navy base in Virginia back in the 1950s and ’60s would play a pivotal role in creating a popular form of technology that is now incorporated into cell phones, cars, space programs, the military, aviation, and even social media. Her work focused on data collection from orbiting satellites and the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth. Her development of the satellite models was eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS) used worldwide today.
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. On Dec. 6, 2018, Dr. Gladys Mae West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame for her efforts and contributions to the Air Force’s space program.
Her lifelong commitment to education and excellence is an inspiration. Today we honor this hidden hero for her work in helping us all find our way wherever we are headed.