Whether it’s navigating jet airliners, providing driving directions to a new restaurant, or geo-tagging your social media pictures, few imagined the impact GPS would have on modern society – including 88-year-old Gladys West.
“I never would have thought that I could sit in a car, and, you know, it says, ‘turn left, turn right,’ no,” she said with a slight laugh.
For 42 years, Gladys was employed by the US Navy. As a mathematician, she would help lay the groundwork for many of the government’s orbital satellite projects. That includes what became the global positioning system – or what we call GPS.
“We didn’t do all the GPS stuff that’s for the car and all that. We didn’t actually do that, but what we did was got the accuracy of where things were located all around the world and stuff, as a database,” she explained.
Born in 1930, Gladys grew up on her family’s farm just south of Richmond, Virginia, where she learned the value of hard work. And that would pay off for West, who wanted more than what life on a country farm could offer.
“You could get a scholarship if you were the first or second in your high school graduating class. So right off, you know, I was Johnny-on-the-spot doing all my work, all the time,” she said.
Gladys finished at the top of her high school class, earning her a full scholarship to what was then called Virginia State College, a historically black school in Petersburg, Virginia.
“The teachers were encouraging me to major in math because they thought that I would be good,” she said.
Again, Gladys finished at the top of her class and went on to complete work on her master’s. In 1956, she accepted a job at the naval support facility in Dahlgren, Virginia. The space race was just taking off, and computers were the wave of the future.
“It was really an excitement, you know? They promised us that they would teach us, you know, how to communicate with this computer and all this stuff, you know,” Gladys recalled. “So, and knowing me, I was ready to work hard with it.”
And work hard she did. With the success of the space program, NASA was beginning to place satellites into orbit. Gladys was tasked to help write and program code needed to process the enormous amount of data coming in.
“You have a long equation and there are certain coefficients that go along with each term. You had to generate them and get them accurate and all,” she explained. “I programmed and coded all those equations and we checked them out by hand cases and all. And they would pass them to the next level.”
The work was long and tedious, with every equation checked and re-checked for accuracy.
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