The humble history of the woman who brought you Global Satellite Positioning

GPS is something that has become so ubiquitous in our lives that we take it for granted. On days you go boating you’ve probably used GPS several times before you even turn on your chartplotter. Did you pull up your weather app before you left the house to check current weather conditions? GPS. Use the maps function on your phone or in your car to pick up a friend or find the nearest Starbucks on the way to the marina? GPS. Use the maps function to get to the marina even though you know how to get there so that you could have traffic data to know how long it would take you? (I’m not the only one who does this, right?) GPS.

An illustration of how satellites orbit the earth , which allows for the precise positioning that Gladys West worked out.

An illustration of how satellites orbit the earth , which allows for the precise positioning that Gladys West worked out.

That is all before we look at how we rely on GPS to position our boats so precisely that we can navigate narrow channels, plan long voyages, and track our path through the water to create a log of our journey. And, until recently, you wouldn’t have known that the woman you have to thank for that technology is Gladys West - a recently revealed “Hidden Figure”- who changed your life with her calculations.

Born in 1931 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, West attended Virginia State College where she studied mathematics. In 1956 she became the second black woman hired at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in the Dalhgren Division. There, Gladys West collected data from satellites and the data and calculations she made eventually led to the creation of Global Positioning System. She worked as a programmer on large-scale computers and became a project manager for the data processing of the analysis of satellite data.

The Washington Post quoted her commanding officer from her time in the Dalhgren Division as saying,

“She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy (science that measures the size and shape of Earth) 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.”

Sam Smith reviews data with Gladys West in 1985 at the Dalhgren Division.

Sam Smith reviews data with Gladys West in 1985 at the Dalhgren Division.

And while her impacts were great, she published an illustrated guide in 1986 on the principles behind GPS entitled, “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter.” She worked for the Naval Surface Warfare Center for 42 years, finally retiring in 1998.

And while her work has greatly impacted our everyday lives, we might not have even known about it if it weren’t for a biography she recently wrote for an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority function to recognize senior members. She dedicated one line in her bio to the fact that she had worked on the team that had developed GPS. A fellow sorority member and close friend of Gladys West, Gwen James, read the line and learned something astonishing about her longtime friend. She said she had to share this revelation about Gladys West, another “Hidden Figure,” with the world. And it is for that one line and her friend realizing its importance that we can now thank Gladys West for the GPS system upon which we so often rely.

A recent photo of Gladys West and her husband, Ira.

A recent photo of Gladys West and her husband, Ira.

As Robert Reeder, our Seamanship columnist would remind you, we should be wary of being entirely reliant on GPS for navigation. Gladys West would agree. Even though she won commendations for her commitment and the long hours she put in to make sure that her calculations were precise and correct, she apparently still travels everywhere with a printed map. Her insistence on traveling with a map baffles her children and grandchildren. Her daughter, Carolyn Oglesby, once asked her mother about why she didn’t trust in the same system that she helped create. Gladys simply said, like any true mathematician, that she couldn't trust that the current data points weren’t outdated or incorrect. And thus, Gladys West always travels with a map, plotting her own way forward in life. 

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