Gladys West - Pioneer of GPS

Sven Etzold
Senior Director Business Marketing
Gladys West - Pioneer of GPS
GPS and GNSS positioning technology is such an integral part of our lives today that we rarely stop to think about where it all came from. When we do, we usually picture men in white shirts and dark glasses hunched over calculators and slide rules. In fact, one of the early pioneers behind GPS and GNSS technology was Gladys West - a black woman.

Born in 1930, Gladys West grew up on a farm in rural Virginia. Gladys’ family and many of those around them were farmers. She worked hard on the farm growing up, but realised the country life was not for her. Her high school offered scholarships to the local university. Seeing her big chance, she worked hard and got a scholarship by graduating first in her class. When she got to university, she decided to study math, where her classmates were mostly men.

"You felt a little bit different. You didn't quite fit in as you did in home economics," she noted to the BBC. "You're always competing and trying to survive because you're in a different group of people."

Most of the few female classmates she had graduated and went on to work in teaching. Gladys did teach for a few years, but then got her Master’s degree, and moved on to work at the Naval research centre in Dahlgren, Virginia. 

At Dahlgren, she was the second black woman and one of just four black employees on base at the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in 1956. She felt that she should do her best, to help set an example for women coming after her.

"I carried that load round, thinking that I had to be the best that I could be," she remembered. 

Her work involved collecting location data from satellites, and using that data along with early supercomputers to analyze the surface of the earth. The work was tedious, but Gladys was ecstatic about the opportunity to work with some of the greatest scientists at the time.

West's hard work on satellite geodesy - the science of measuring the size and shape of the Earth, directly contributed to the GPS and GNSS positioning technology. Her diligence paid off, and she was commended by her supervisor with an award in 1979.

Today, GPS and GNSS positioning is used in everything from our smartphones, to drones, to automobiles and more. From transportation, to logistics and manufacturing, to healthcare, there’s no major industry that it hasn't touched. 

West still finds it hard to believe sometimes how her work is now a part of such a widely-used technology. She notes, “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.’”

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