Dr. Gladys West is inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame during a ceremony in her honor at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Dec. 6, 2018. West was among the so-called "Hidden Figures" part of the team who did computing for the U.S. military in the era before electronic systems. The Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame is one of Air Force's Space Commands Highest Honors.(Photo by Adrian Cadiz)

Gladys Mae West (née Brown; born October 27, 1930[1]) 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).[2] West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. West was awarded the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award at 25th Annual Webby Awards for the development of the satellite geodesy models.


Gladys Mae West (née Brown; born October 27, 1930[1]) is an American mathematician. She is known for her contributions to mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of satellite geodesy models, that were later incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS).[2] West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. West was awarded the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for the development of satellite geodesy models.[3][4]

Gladys West
West in 2018
Gladys Mae Brown

(1930-10-27) October 27, 1930 (age 93)
Alma mater
Known forSatellite geodesy
Ira West
(m. 1957)

Early life and education

Gladys Mae Brown was born in Sutherland, Virginia, in Dinwiddie County, a rural county south of Richmond.[2][5][6] Her family was an African-American farming family in a community of sharecroppers. She spent much of her childhood working on her family's small farm.[7][8] As well as working on the farm, her mother worked in a tobacco factory and her father worked for the railroad.[6][9] West saw education as her way to a different life.[10]

At West's high school, the top two students from each graduating class received full scholarships to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), a historically black public university.[7] West graduated as valedictorian in 1948, and received the scholarship.[6][10] At VSU, West chose to study mathematics, a subject that was mostly studied at her college by men.[7] She also joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.[2] West graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics,[6] and then taught math and science for two years in Waverly, Virginia.[6] West returned to VSU to complete a Master of Mathematics degree, graduating in 1955.[10][6] Afterward, she began another teaching position in Martinsville, Virginia.[6]


Data processing report for GeoSat by Gladys West[11]

In 1956, West was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia (now the Naval Surface Warfare Center). Here, she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees.[7][5][2] West was a computer programmer in the Dahlgren division, and a project manager for processing systems for satellite data analysis.[12] Concurrently, West earned a Master's degree in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma.[6]

In the early 1960s, West participated in an award-winning study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.[13] Subsequently, West began to analyze satellite altimeter data from NASA's Geodetic Earth Orbiting program, to create models of the Earth's shape. She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans.[14][15] West's work cut her team's processing time in half, and she was recommended for a commendation.[16]

Gladys West and Sam Smith look over data from the Global Positioning System at Dahlgren in 1985

From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, West programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations for the shape of the Earth; an ellipsoid with additional undulations known as the geoid.[8] To generate an accurate geopotential model West needed to use complex algorithms to account for variations in the gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth's shape.[9]

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). This explained how to improve the accuracy of geoid heights and vertical deflection, important components of satellite geodesy.[2] This was achieved by processing data from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984.[11]

West worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, and retired in 1998.[7] In 2000, she completed a PhD in Public Administration at Virginia Tech by distance-learning.[13][17][18]


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 recognized when a member of her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha read a short biography West had submitted for an alumni function.[2]

West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the highest honors bestowed by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC).[19][13] The AFSPC press release hailed her as one of "the 'Hidden Figures' part of the team who did computing for the US military in the era before electronic systems", a reference to the 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was adapted into the film Hidden Figures.[20] Capt. Godfrey Weekes, commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, 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 ... in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come."[21] West agreed, saying "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.'"[2]

As an alumna of Virginia State University, West won the award for "Female Alumna of the Year" at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Awards in 2018.[22]

West was selected by the BBC as part of their 100 Women of 2018.[7] In 2021, she was awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering, their highest individual honor.[23][24]

Personal life

West met her husband Ira 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.[2] They were married in 1957.[7][5] They have three children (Carolyn, David and Michael), and seven grandchildren.[2] The West family went to Chapel on the Proving Ground every Sunday.[9] As of February 2018, West lives in King George County, Virginia.[2]

Before being hired, West initially turned down the job due to its location and the requirement to interview. West did not have a car and could not find Dahlgren on a map, and she believed that they would reject her after the interview because of her race, so she decided to wait to hear back from other applications. However, Dahlgren contacted her again, offering her the job without the need to interview. The job offered twice the salary of her teaching position. Being hired solely on her qualifications, with a salary that would eventually help her support her family, was a rare find for a black woman at that time.

In 1954, the Supreme Court had made a landmark decision on Brown vs. Board of Education, ruling that American state laws that established racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. However, Virginia was still segregated since the Supreme Court had not specified which states were required to reestablish in accordance to the new ruling. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were still at large, and the prospect of moving to a rural neighborhood in a southern state was daunting for an unmarried black woman.

The Civil Rights movement was fully underway during her time at the base. Though she supported the movement, she could not participate in protests because she was a government employee. In Boomtown, where married people lived on base, she was part of a club of black women who discussed civil rights topics.[25]: 91–92 

During her career, West encountered many hardships because of racism against African Americans. A prime example was the lack of recognition she received while working, while her white coworkers received praise and added privileges. Her biography makes clear her disappointment at not being granted projects that included travel and exposure.[25]: 97, 105 [26]

West continues to prefer using paper maps over GNSS-based navigation systems,[27] saying, "I'm a doer, hands-on kind of person. If I can see the road and see where it turns and see where it went, I am more sure."[8]


  • West, Gladys B. (1979). "Smoothing of Geos 3 satellite radar altimeter data". Journal of Geophysical Research. 84 (B8). American Geophysical Union (AGU): 4055. Bibcode:1979JGR....84.4055W. doi:10.1029/jb084ib08p04055. ISSN 0148-0227.
  • West, Gladys B (May 1981). SEASAT Satellite Radar Altimetry Data Processing System (Technical report). Dahlgren, VA: Naval Surface Weapons Center. NSWC TR 81-234, DTIC ADA115972 – via Defense Technical Information Center.
  • West, Gladys B. (July 10, 1982). "Mean Earth ellipsoid determined from SEASAT 1 altimetric observations". Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth. 87 (B7). American Geophysical Union (AGU): 5538–5540. Bibcode:1982JGR....87.5538W. doi:10.1029/jb087ib07p05538. ISSN 0148-0227.
  • West, Gladys B. Data Processing System Specifications for the GEOSAT Satellite Radar Altimeter (Technical report). Dahlgren VA: Naval Surface Weapons Center. NSWC TR 86-149, DTIC ADA181113 – via Defense Technical Information Center.

See also


  1. ^ "Gladys West | Biography, Accomplishments, Hidden Figure, GPS, Mathematician, & Facts | Britannica". October 23, 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Dyson, Cathy (January 19, 2018). "Gladys West's work on GPS 'would impact the world'". The Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg.com. Retrieved February 9, 2018. Also printed as: Stamford Advocate Archived 22 February 2018 at the Wayback Machine; Washington Post 2018-02-01 Archived 7 November 2018 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "WINNERS ANNOUNCED FOR THE 25TH ANNUAL WEBBY AWARDS" (Press release). Webby awards. Retrieved January 10, 2022.
  4. ^ Grein, Paul (May 18, 2021). "BTS, Dua Lipa & More Lead 2021 Webby Awards Winners". Billboard. Retrieved January 10, 2022.
  5. ^ a b c Hayes, Jaron (June 19, 2015). "Boomtown Discussion Draws Crowd for Dahlgren Museum Series". South Potomac Pilot. p. 1. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Kinkade, Daniel (May 3, 2019). "Destination on Right: the Influence of Dr. Gladys West". Gideons International. Retrieved May 29, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Butterly, Amelia (May 20, 2018). "Gladys West – the 'hidden figure' of GPS". BBC News Online. BBC 100 Women 2018.
  8. ^ a b c Mohdin, Aamna (November 19, 2020). "Gladys West: the hidden figure who helped invent GPS". The Guardian. Retrieved November 20, 2020.
  9. ^ a b c West, Gladys B.; Jackson, M.H. (2020). It began with a dream. King George, Virginia: IGWEST Publishing. pp. 55–138. ISBN 978-0-578-67638-8.
  10. ^ a b c Lane, Derrick (December 18, 2018). "Dr. Gladys West: The Black Woman Behind GPS Technology". BlackDoctor.org. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  11. ^ 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. Archived (PDF) from the original on February 6, 2019. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  12. ^ "Forum to Recount Impact of the War Years on Dahlgren and Region". Dahlgren Museum. June 11, 2015. Archived from the original on May 7, 2021. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  13. ^ a b c Air Force Space Command Public Affairs (December 7, 2018). "Mathematician inducted into Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame". Air Force Space Command. Archived from the original on June 3, 2019. Retrieved February 4, 2019.
  14. ^ "Seasat". www.jpl.nasa.gov. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  15. ^ "NASA – NSSDCA – Spacecraft – Details". nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  16. ^ Riley, Ricky (February 7, 2018). "Celebrate Black History Month: When you use your GPS, remember Gladys West". The Atlanta Voice | Atlanta GA News. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  17. ^ "Meet Gladys West: One of the 'Hidden Figures' behind the creation of GPS System". Because of Them, We Can. February 8, 2018. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  18. ^ Hayes, Luke; Jefferies, Dawn (October 25, 2023). "Mathematician Gladys West '00 paves the way for GPS". Virginia Tech News. Retrieved March 24, 2024.
  19. ^ "Hidden Figure | Mathematician who helped develop GPS technology inducted into Air Force hall of fame". Colorado Springs Gazette. December 19, 2019. Retrieved February 12, 2019 – via 9News.
  20. ^ Glorfeld, Jeff (October 14, 2019). "Science History: Gladys West maps the future". Cosmos. Archived from the original on August 17, 2021. Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  21. ^ Capt. Godfrey Weekes, in a 2017 message about Black History Month, as quoted by Dyson (2018).
  22. ^ Report, Contributed. "VSU finalist in nine HBCU Award categories". The Progress-Index. Archived from the original on August 17, 2021. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  23. ^ Ship, Chris (June 10, 2021). "Princess Anne remembers 'inquisitive' Prince Philip on day he would have been 100". ITV News. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  24. ^ "'Hidden Figure' whose mathematical modelling enabled GPS becomes first woman to win the Prince Philip Medal". Royal Academy of Engineering. Archived from the original on June 10, 2021. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  25. ^ a b West, Gladys B. (June 17, 2020). It Began With a Dream. M. H. Jackson. King George: IGWEST. ISBN 978-0-578-67638-8. OCLC 1193325232.
  26. ^ Nelsen, R. Arvid (2017). "Race and Computing: The Problem of Sources, the Potential of Prosopography, and the Lesson of Ebony Magazine". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 39 (1): 29–51. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2016.11. S2CID 6992544.
  27. ^ Kenney, Tanasia (February 4, 2018). "Meet Gladys West, The Black Female Engineer Who Played a 'Pivotal' Role In Developing the GPS". Atlanta Black Star. Retrieved March 17, 2019.

Further reading

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