Gladys West and Sam Smith

While you’re taking a road trip, looking for a hot new restaurant, or looking for your new office building, what tool is more useful than a Global Positioning System (GPS)? Maybe a car, but that’s not important. Having GPS on our phones makes getting around more efficient. And while we may not think about our GPS once we reach our destination, there’s a fascinating story behind it.

The prominent one hidden figure, Dr. Gladys West, was a true pioneer who broke racial barriers and contributed to the invention of GPS. Without her inquisitive spirit and drive for knowledge, she might never have gotten where she needed to be.

It all started with a dream

Born in 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia, West spent much of her childhood — when she wasn’t in school — harvesting on her family farm. In her memoir, It all started with a dream, she recalls walking the three miles to the one-room segregated schoolhouse “with rusty, run-down furniture, sometimes leaking ceilings, and always donated books.”

Challenging racial barriers

There wasn’t many opportunities for young black women in her community that did not involve farming or working in a tobacco factory. But West wanted and knew she was meant for more. She breaks down racial barriers in science and math.

“Every day I wished and dreamed of more – more books, more classrooms, more teachers, and more time to dream and imagine what life would be like, if only I could fly away from the hectic and seemingly endless work on our family farm.” she said in it memoirs.

It wasn’t long before that dream came true.

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Dr. Gladys West Early Life

West worked and studied hard, graduating from high school as a professional. Her high academic performance earned her a scholarship to HBCUs Virginia State College – which is now Virginia State University. It was there that West earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, graduating in 1955.

Finding opportunity in the fleet

Before returning for his master’s degree, West worked as a math teacher. In between getting her degrees, she tried to get a government job; however, it was unsuccessful due to racial segregation and sexism. In 1956, West finally received a job offer in the US Navy.

During his long and successful career, West went back to school and won second master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma in 1973. After retiring in 1998 from his job in the U.S. Navy at the age of 68, West attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) and received his Ph.D. in public administration and political affairs at the age of 70.

Superiority over others

In his memoir, West recounts how while earning his Ph.D. at VPI, she assumed that her colleagues—many of them highly educated white men—would be smarter than she was. They had gone to better schools and been given better opportunities. However, she found that she could hold her own and often performed better than her peers.

“I realized I was pretty smart, especially compared to some of my classmates who didn’t know as much as I did. Some of them failed the tests and were given exams so they could stay in the doctoral program,” she said in her memoir.

Brilliant student

West also explained how studying at an HBCU taught her more than just subject matter knowledge. “Those who did not do their work due to lack of effort were sent home. No make-up tests, no breaks, no ifs, ands, or buts, because they were preparing us for the harsh world of discrimination and prejudice that awaited us,” West said in his memoir.

Read more: 8 Amazing Black Scientists and How They Changed History

Breaking down female barriers

When West joined the US Navy in 1956 as a mathematician for the US Naval Proving Ground – a weapons laboratory in Virginia. She was one of four black employees, including Ira W. West, a fellow mathematician and future husband. Together, she and Ira eventually had three children.

A remarkable female mathematician

While working for the US Naval Air Station, West solved complex math equations by hand, but eventually programmed computers to calculate equations for her. One of her first major projects included the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC) — a program that helps track the movements of Pluto conjunct Neptune. After 100 hours of computer programming and five billion calculations, the project received merit award.

Read more: Meet 10 women in science who changed the world

Invention of GPS

From there she became the project manager for SEASAT, an experimental observation satellite that operates for 99 days in orbit around the Earth. It is designed to collect data on the elements of the ocean, including wave heights, icebergs and temperatures. It was the first program to prove that satellites could collect useful ocean data.


West and her colleagues can then build GEOSAT, a satellite program that creates computer models of the planet’s surface. Through this, satellite motions can be accurately calculated and a model of the Earth – also known as a – can be formed geoid. These models helped make GPS an accurate tool.

In December 2018, Dr. Gladys West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, proving her remarkable influence on science and the Air Force space program.

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