Black History Month is the perfect time to learn about the unspoken heroes and innovators that are not routinely discussed ever.
For 42 years, mathematician Gladys West worked at the naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia, as part of the team that developed the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the Stamford Advocate. Most people didn’t know of the 87-year-old’s barrier-breaking achievements.
West’s work is becoming better known thanks to Gwen James.
James learned of West’s work while at an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority function, where a line in West’s bio mentioned her calculations helped create the GPS. The two had been friends for 15 years, and the news shocked James to learn her sister had a hand in creating something so historic.
“GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever,” James said. “There is not a segment of this global society — military, auto industry, cell phone industry, social media, parents, NASA, etc. — that does not utilize the Global Positioning System.”
Once she found out about West’s contributions, James made it her mission to spread the word about this hidden figure.
West’s career started in 1956, when she was the second black woman hired at the Dahlgren base. She was one of four black employees, one of whom, Ira, would later become her husband.
West worked with giant supercomputers that filled the room. She gathered location data from orbiting machines, working with early computer software to analyze surface elevations. She filled her days and nights with countless equations.
It was long, hard, complex work. But West says she “was ecstatic. I was able to come from Dinwiddie County and be able to work with some of the greatest scientists working on these projects.”
She was so ecstatic that she put in extra hours — so many that she cut her team’s processing time in half, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars. Her supervisor, Ralph Neiman, noticed her diligence and recommended her for a commendation in 1979.
“This involved planning and executing several highly complex computer algorithms which have to analyze an enormous amount of data,” Neiman wrote then. “You have used your knowledge of computer applications to accomplish this in an efficient and timely manner.”
What she helped to create isn’t lost on her, but West still finds it hard to fathom how ubiquitous her technology has become.
“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,’” West said.
And though West has GPS devices like the rest of us, she still trusts her brain above all, plotting her trips using math and a paper map.
“I asked her why she didn’t just use the Garmin [GPS] since she knows the equations that she helped write are correct,” her oldest daughter, Carolyn Oglesby, said. “She says the data points could be wrong or outdated so she has to have that map.”