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Gladys West

Updated: May 23, 2023

Would you ever have guessed that the inventor of the GPS is a black woman? Yes, believe it! It's what we use for directions when we don't want to get lost. It's what we install in our cars to track them down in case of theft. It also can be used to track the weather and so many more great things. Well, like so many other brilliant inventions, the credit goes to yet another black inventor named Gladys West.

Gladys Mae West is a skilled mathematician. This sister is known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth. She also worked on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System; GPS.

Born on October 27, 1930, in Sutherland VA. Gladys Mae resided in Dinwiddie County for most of her life. Her parents owned a small farm. West would pick corn, cotton, and tobacco throughout her childhood. Many of her teachers recognized her passion for mathematics and encouraged her to keep at it.

This was a black woman who grew up in the early 19th century. In her community, the only clear options for a young black girl’s future were continuing to farm, having children, or working at a tobacco-processing plant. At school, her talent for learning offered another path. As valedictorian of her graduating class, Gladys received a full scholarship to the historically black college, Virginia State University; where she earned a degree in mathematics in 1952.

She grew to be the second Black woman to be hired at the naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia. This is now known as the Dahlgren Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center. Being one of only four black employees, West was admired for her ability to solve complex mathematical equations. She eventually transitioned from solving the equations herself to programming computers.

“From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System orbit,” (Air Force press release) West's induction into the Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame.

"Always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women." -West

It is such a misfortune that black inventors are rarely ever credited for their work. Hopefully, this story helps shed light on all of the Black and Latino inventors of America, who've made countless contributions to building this country into the oh-so-lucrative corporation that it is today. This will be one that goes recognized in history. Thank you for your contribution, Ms. Gladys Mae West.

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