Gladys West

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Gladys West
Dr Gladys West Hall of Fame.jpg
in 2018
Gladys Mae Brown

1930 (age 89–90)
Alma mater
Known forSatellite geodesy
Ira West (m. 1957)

Gladys Mae West (née Brown) (born 1930) is an American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS).[1] West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018.

Early life and education[edit]

West was born in Sutherland, Virginia, in Dinwiddie County, a rural county south of Richmond.[1][2][3] West's family was an African American farming family in a community of sharecroppers.[4] Her mother worked at a tobacco factory, and her father was a farmer who also worked for the railroad.[3] West realized early on that she did not want to work in the tobacco fields or factories like the rest of her family, and decided that education would be her way out.[5]

At West's high school, the top two students of each graduating class received full-ride scholarships to Virginia State University (formerly College), a historically black public university.[4] West worked hard and graduated in 1948 with the title of valedictorian.[5][3] She was initially unsure what college major to pursue at VSU, as she had excelled in all of her subjects in high school. She was encouraged to major in science or math because of their difficulty, and West ultimately chose to study mathematics, a subject mostly studied by men.[4] She also became a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.[1] West graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics.[3] After graduating, she taught math and science for two years in Waverly, Virginia.[3] West then returned to Virginia State University (formerly College) to complete her Master of Mathematics degree, graduating in 1955.[5][3] Afterwards, she briefly took another teaching position in Martinsville, Virginia.[3]


Data processing report for GeoSat by Gladys West[6]

In 1956, West was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center), where she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees.[4][2][1] West was a programmer in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division for large-scale computers and a project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data.[7] At the same time, West earned a second master's degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.[3]

In the early 1960s, she participated in an award-winning astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.[8] Subsequently, West began to analyze data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the Earth's shape. She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans.[9][10] West consistently put in extra hours, cutting her team’s processing time in half.[4] She was recommended for a commendation in 1979.[11]

From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, West programmed an IBM computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth – an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. Generating an extremely accurate model required her to employ complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. West's data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).[8]

In 1986, West published "Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter", a 51-page technical report from The Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC). The guide was published to explain how to increase the accuracy of the estimation of geoid heights and vertical deflection, important components of satellite geodesy.[1] This was achieved by processing the data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984.[6]

West worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, retiring in 1998.[4] After retiring, she completed a PhD in Public Administration from Virginia Tech.


Gladys West being inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018

West's vital contributions to GPS technology were rediscovered when a member of West's sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha read a short biography Gladys had submitted for an alumni function.[1]

West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the Air Force Space Command's highest honors.[12][8] Capt. Godfrey Weekes, commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in 2018, described the role played by West in the development of Global Positioning System: “She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy, and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data. As Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come."[13] West agreed, saying that she had no idea at the time that her work would affect so many: “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.’ ”[1]

West was selected by the BBC as part of their 100 Women of 2018.[4]

Personal life[edit]


She met her husband Ira West at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, where he also worked as a mathematician. They were two of only four black employees at the time.[1] They were married in 1957.[4][2] They have three children and seven grandchildren.[1] As of February 2018, West lives in King George County, Virginia.[1]

In 2018, West completed a PhD via a distance-learning program with Virginia Tech.[8][14]

West continues to prefer using a paper map over a tracking system, saying that she still trusts her brain above all.[15]


  • Gladys B. West, "Smoothing of Geos 3 satellite radar altimeter data," J. Geophysical Research, Volume 84, Issue B8, 10 July 1979, Pages 4055-4060
  • Gladys B. West, SEASAT Satellite Radar Altimetry Data Processing System, Technical report, Naval Surface Weapons Center, Dahlgren VA, May 1981. Full Text: pdf
  • Gladys B. West, "Mean Earth ellipsoid determined from SEASAT 1 altimetric observations", J. Geophysical Res., Volume 87, No. B7, 10 July 1982, Pages 5538-5540.
  • Gladys B. West, "Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter" (PDF). Naval Surface Weapons Center, Dahlgren VA, Report NSWC TR 86-149. June 1986. Retrieved 2018-02-09.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Dyson, Cathy (2018-01-19). "Gladys West's work on GPS 'would impact the world'". The Free Lance Star, Retrieved 2018-02-09. Also printed as: Stamford Advocate (dead link); Washington Post 2018-02-01 (dead link)
  2. ^ a b c Hayes, Jaron (2015-06-19). "Boomtown Discussion Draws Crowd for Dahlgren Museum Series". South Potomac Pilot. p. 1. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Kinkade, Daniel (2019-05-03). "Destination on Right: the Influence of Dr. Gladys West". Gideons International. Retrieved 2019-05-29.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Butterfly, Amelia (20 May 2018). "Gladys West – the 'hidden figure' of GPS". BBC News Online. BBC 100 Women 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Lane, Derrick (2018-12-18). "Dr. Gladys West: The Black Woman Behind GPS Technology". Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  6. ^ a b West, Gladys B. (June 1986). "Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter" (PDF). Naval Surface Weapons Center, Report NSWC TR 86-149. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  7. ^ "Forum to Recount Impact of the War Years on Dahlgren and Region". Dahlgren Museum. 2015-06-11. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  8. ^ a b c d Air Force Space Command Public Affairs (2018-12-07). "Mathematician inducted into Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame". Air Force Space Command. Retrieved 2019-02-04.
  9. ^ "Seasat". Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  10. ^ "NASA – NSSDCA – Spacecraft – Details". Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  11. ^ Riley, Ricky (2018-02-07). "Celebrate Black History Month: When you use your GPS, remember Gladys West |". The Atlanta Voice | Atlanta GA News. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  12. ^ "Hidden Figure | Mathematician who helped develop GPS technology inducted into Air Force hall of fame". Colorado Springs Gazette. December 19, 2019. Retrieved 21 February 2019 – via 9News.
  13. ^ Capt. Godfrey Weekes, in a 2017 message about Black History Month, as quoted by Dyson (2018).
  14. ^ "Meet Gladys West: One Of The 'Hidden Figures' Behind The Creation Of The GPS System". Because of Them, We Can. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  15. ^ Kenney, Tanasia (2018-02-04). "Meet Gladys West, The Black Female Engineer Who Played a 'Pivotal' Role In Developing the GPS". Atlanta Black Star. Retrieved 2019-03-17.

Further reading[edit]