Home / News / Dr. Gladys West, The Black Woman Who Invented The GPS, Gets Honored By U.S. Air Force At The Pentagon

Dr. Gladys West, The Black Woman Who Invented The GPS, Gets Honored By U.S. Air Force At The Pentagon

Did you know that a black woman from Virginia was instrumental in creating a convenience we use every day and almost can’t live without? Yes indeed, Dr. Gladys West invented the GPS or the Global Positioning System and has finally received the recognition she deserves by being inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame by the United States Air Force during a ceremony held at the Pentagon this week.

The 87-year-old scholar knew as a child that she did not want to work in fields, picking tobacco, corn, and cotton or in a factory, beating tobacco leaves for cigarettes and pipes like her parents did. She said, “I realized I had to get an education to get out.” And that she did, studying math at #VirginiaState and graduating top of her class. She became a teacher for two years, then went back to school for her Masters. 

In 1956, West began to work at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, where she was the second black woman ever to be employed. There, she collected data from satellites, and that job is what eventually led to the development of the Global Positioning System. In 1986, West published “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter,” a 60-page illustrated guide, which was based off data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984. She worked at Dahlgren for 42 years and retired in 1998.

West’s humble character is part of why many people were unaware of her role in the development of the device for decades. She said, “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.’”

In 2017, Capt. Godfrey Weekes, the then-commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, described the “integral role” West played in a Black History Month message. He wrote, “She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy [science that measures the size and shape of Earth] 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.”

Congratulations to a “hidden figure,” Dr. Gladys West! Thank you for your great contribution to science and your #BlackGirlMagic ✨

Adrian Cadiz

 

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19 comments

  1. This is not true. Three white men invented GPS: Easton, Getting and Parkinson. West simply helped with the math. This is PC propaganda.

    • Thomas S. Logsdon

      There was also a 4th major inventor. Hugo Fruehoff. He shared in the $1.3 million engineering award from Queen Elizabeth in London. Tom Logsdon Linkedin member from Seal Beach, CA

    • Wikipedia acknowledged Gladys West: Roger L. Easton of the Naval Research Laboratory, Ivan A. Getting of The Aerospace Corporation, and Bradford Parkinson of the Applied Physics Laboratory are credited with inventing it. The work of Gladys West is credited as instrumental in the development of computational techniques for detecting satellite positions with the precision needed for GPS.

    • Roger Easton and Bradford Parkinson invented GPS. Let’s not get that confused.
      Dr. West programmed a “stretch” IBM 7030 to deliver “increasingly refined calculations for a more accurate geodetic Earth model to pinpoint where things were within 3 feet. That was a lot of work, perseverance and the IBM 7030 was a bear to program.

    • And who invented the PC? Am sure you will say Microsoft right? You see your life?

  2. Thomas S. Logsdon

    There is also a 4th major inventor of the GPS. He is Hugo Fruehauf Who was officially recognized by General Thompson of the US Air force and the queen of England in London where he shared in the $1.3 million engineering prize in 2019.

    • Another who should be included here. Test pilot and GPS creator, Calvin Dewey Shoemaker b 9-28-23 d 2018 in L.A. Born in Pleasant Grove AL. Met him in 2011 and later read of his accomplishments and awards in Huntsville. He is the real deal.

  3. Back in the day, 1967 or 68 I went to work for Philco Ford in Palo Alto. Previous to my job there, the company had built a constellation of satellites that I was told were the first of the Global Positioning System. Dr West most likely had a hand in perfecting the system but not in inventing it.

  4. people can not let this woman have her victory. this isn’t about no one but her right now. I’m sure those other people have already been recognized. this woman probably had to work 3 times harder because 1- she was a woman and 2- SHE IS BLACK. so right this moment, EVERYONE ELSE IS IRRELEVANT. BLACK GIRL MAGIC.

  5. Guess most people can’t move beyond the headline to actually read what the article says. Don’t say “simply helped with the math” as if they could get anywhere without the “math” that makes it go, so being instrumental is more accurate. This is just like how professors take credit for the work that students do when it’s time to publish the paper since you want to give all the credit to other people. A lot of creations people “simply” put their names on, you know, like Jack Daniels.

    • EXACTLY if nothing else the movie Hidden Figures should have taught us that much the math is the foundation of any invention.

    • Deidra Cade, you are so right. People are amazed today by the geometry of the GPS system. Euclid could probably have solved all of the geometry problems of GPS two thousand years ago. It was the “math” and other technologies that were missing: the precision measurements, the propagation and precise timing of radio waves, the programming, the processing speed of computers, the advanced topographical maps and measurements that had to be available, the array of satellites that had to be placed in space with absolute accuracy. And math was the key to so many of the technologies that constituted the GPS “system.” Give credit to Dr. West for her herculean math efforts in designing programs that could make such incredibly precise measurements. She was indeed instrumental in the development of GPS.

  6. The honour given to her by US air force is also an evidence of her contribution in inventing GPS.

  7. Tonya St. Andrew Stringfellow

    If you take the time to read. The article clearly states “Did you know that a black woman from Virginia was instrumental in creating a convenience we use every day and almost can’t live without”… For hundreds of years other people have been taking credit for things they did not invent, build, create or found. Our country is built on the backs of slaves. We have so many other black women & men who have created technology that we use today. Shirley Ann Jackson is another alone with so many more I can type here. Shirley Ann Jackson led research to develop caller ID and call waiting functions while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the 1970s. Research your REAL history and learn the truth!

    • You are right.

    • The title is misleading is the entire point. She didn’t create it. She did help with the math which was a important part of the process. She deserves recognition and credit for it.

      Just like Jack Daniels mentioned above. He was taught how to distill whisky by another person but Daniels himself created his particular recipe and methods used today. Saying he doesn’t get credit is like saying Einstein doesn’t get credit for his accomplishments but his first math teacher does.

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