Gladys West: At the roots of GPS

Techsense team I 5:45 pm, 3rd November

"Imagination is the highest form of research." - Albert Einstein

This quote by Einstein clearly shows that if you want to make a change, you have to look beyond the world that you live in. People who create breakthroughs and technological marvels are those who dare to think beyond the ordinary. Computers, smartphones, and the Internet are revolutionary technologies that have changed the way we live our lives today. Another such technology is GPS (Global Positioning System), and the credit goes to Gladys West.

Who is Gladys West?

Born in 1930, Gladys West is an American mathematician famous for her work that contributed to the development of the GPS. Her parents owned a small farm in rural Virginia and in her early years, Gladys had to help harvest crops. However, she knew in her heart that she was not meant to be a farmer. She knew that getting an education was her ticket to freedom.

Growing up, Gladys knew that there weren’t too many opportunities available for Black people and even fewer ones for a Black girl. She never gave up and went on to become the valedictorian of her high school. Soon after, Gladys earned a degree in Mathematics in 1952 from the Virginia State College, now known as the Virginia State University. She also earned her Master’s degree from the same college in 1955.

An outstanding career

Gladys West began her career as a Mathematician at the US Naval Proving Ground in 1956. It was a weapons laboratory in Virginia, and there were only three other black employees when she joined.

Gladys was widely admired for her ability to solve complex mathematical problems by hand. She eventually went on to program computers to solve the equations for her. Her first major project was on the NORC (Naval Ordinance Research Calculator), wherein she had to determine the movements of Neptune and Pluto in relation to each other.

In 1978, Gladys became the Project Manager of SeaSat, an American surveillance satellite designed to provide data on oceanographic features and conditions. The project was among the first to show that satellites can be used to observe oceanographic data. By programming a computer to account for tides, gravity, and other factors, Gladys and her team created a program to precisely calculate the orbit of satellites. Her work on this project made it possible to develop a geoid, which is a model of the shape of the Earth. The model and later updates led to her developing the GPS system, which can make accurate calculations in any location on Earth.

In 2018, Gladys West received formal recognition for her work on the GPS, and she was admitted into the Hall of Fame of the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers. Her name also got featured on the BBC’s 100 Women of 2018, which honored inspiring women from around the globe.

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